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.
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.