Like bees to honey, the world's major makers of bullet trains are converging on the planned Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed rail project to pitch their version of a really fast train service.State rail officials expect as many as eight bidders -- foreign high-speed rail companies, often partnered with U.S. interests -- to try to win the right to design, build, operate and maintain the Tampa-to-Orlando link as the country's first piece of a statewide, and eventually nationally linked, high-speed rail network.
The players in this high-stakes project range from Europe's veteran high-speed rail providers like Germany's Siemens and France's Alstom to Canada's Bombardier, Asia's Central Japan Railway (Japan pioneered high-speed rail) and companies from China and South Korea. Since this country never pursued high-speed rail, there is no U.S.-based company building bullet trains. But a few U.S. companies, notably General Electric with China, are partners with foreign firms in the coming bidding war.
All their money, energy and lobbying might is aimed at a modest 84-mile corridor that, come 2015, is expected to carry passengers via train between Tampa and Orlando at up to 168 miles per hour and in as little as 43 minutes nonstop. Nationally, the Obama administration backs high-speed rail with an initial $8 billion down payment.
It will take much, much more. The auto-loving United States represents one of the last advanced countries to embrace high-speed rail.
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The bullet train industry is salivating at the eventual possibility and price tag of a statewide, and then a national coast-to-coast system -- not unlike the transforming federal highway system of the 1950s -- of trains hurtling at speeds of 150 to 220 mph or even faster in the years ahead.
Sounds exciting. Sounds American. But let's not jump the gun. The current deal-making about to commence is just about the Tampa-to-Orlando line. Two things must happen to help ensure this leg of the high-speed rail system materializes.
First, the federal government, after committing an initial $1.25 billion to jumpstart the Central Florida link, must come up with another round of funds of a similar amount. And second, the project must avoid being scuttled if Rick Scott is elected Florida's next governor. He has raised concerns about the cost of the project.
Kevin Thibault's keeping his eye on the next step in the Tampa-to-Orlando project. As head of the Florida Rail Enterprise, part of the state's Department of Transportation, he will issue an RFQ, or request for qualification, late this year to ensure interested bullet train companies are up to snuff. Then in March, an RFP, or request for proposal, goes out to approved bidders. Final proposals will arrive for consideration by next September.
``We expect to see a good eight solid proposals from these groups,'' Thibault says. ``That makes for good competition, so it will be difficult to whittle down the bids.'' From an initial eight, he sees three or four bids making a final cut before one high-speed rail provider is chosen and a long-term final contract is awarded, all with input from the federal government.
I checked in with a number of high-speed rail companies to gauge their levels of interest in the Tampa-to-Orlando link and to ask:
What makes your speedy train system better than the next guy's?
Everybody's touting speed, experience and the greater-good arguments. High-speed rail is energy efficient, they all say. And it's a critical 21st century component of any advanced nation's mix of transportation options, especially as population and energy costs grow.
Siemens, the German high-speed rail contender, raised its public profile by building a temporary exhibit of its Velaro bullet train at Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry this month. Oliver Hauck, president of Siemens' mobility division, explains you can go about 700 miles per gallon per passenger on this train. He's promoting it for Florida as well as the planned California line that eventually will link San Francisco to Los Angeles and, later, to San Diego.
Another contender is Ian Rainey, who represents the U.S.-Japan High-Speed Rail joint venture. In an interview from Japan, he touts the bullet train from Central Japan Railway (called JRC). The co-manager of the Florida project says his team is focused here because Florida represents a ``closed'' system of rails. That means they will be used exclusively for high-speed trains and not shared with slow-moving freight or other trains. California's proposed system, for example, will not be exclusive to high-speed rail. The Japan interests are not pursuing that project.
High-speed rail works best on travel distances between 200 and 600 miles. That's when the speed of the train vastly surpasses autos and when the superior speed of airplanes does not start to become a factor. Benefits of high-speed rail include reducing road and air congestion, less oil dependence, fewer highway deaths and greater job creation.
Montreal-based Bombardier has manufactured high-speed locomotives for 20 years, many of them at its Plattsburgh plant in upstate New York. Spokeswoman Maryanne Roberts says the company (it makes the people mover trams at Tampa International Airport, among other things) is keen on the Florida project and is talking to partners.
Why partners? Because Florida wants any company or partnership that bids on this project to be capable of doing everything. That includes ``design, build, operate and maintain'' the high-speed rail system. Industry people call this ``DBOM'' -- for the four initials -- so some partnering becomes necessary to have all those skills under one roof.
In truth, the Tampa-to-Orlando link, the first leg of a statewide network, is more of a ``higher-speed'' than a high-speed rail service. Whichever bullet train gets picked, its potential speed of 168 miles per hour will rarely if ever be reached, especially if a train is scheduled to stop at any of its five stations along the 84-mile link. The average speed will be closer to 100 mph.
But the next link of Orlando-to-Miami, whenever it happens, is 220 miles and will allow for higher speeds.
The economic impact of building high speed rail between Tampa, Orlando and Miami could produce up to $2.8 billion annually in new business in the Orlando area alone by 2035, according to a recent U.S. Conference of Mayors study.
The study did not address Tampa's impact specifically, though there are clear if lesser financial benefits. Orlando seems poised to gain a lot from high-speed rail statewide, because its central location makes it a hub for many rail routes.
To be clear, the planned high-speed rail network in Florida is a separate project from the proposed regional light-rail and bus system for the Tampa Bay area. The regional mass transit system is getting under way first in Hillsborough County, where residents vote next month on a penny sales tax to fund the project. Other area counties are expected to follow suit in coming years.
A high-speed rail system that ends in Tampa without a connecting regional light rail and enhanced bus system will represent a job half done and ultimately prove an economic drag to the Tampa Bay area. Because Florida is crawling so slowly out of a deep recession, concern that any rail system may require ongoing subsidies from struggling federal or state coffers will spur controversy.
For now, at least, the international bullet train industry is hyper-focused on bidding for the Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed link. Has there ever been such a global business initiative devoted to one Central Florida project?