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Can Germans fast track California's delayed high-speed rail project?

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Can Germans fast track California's delayed high-speed rail project?
Source: California High Speed Rail Authority
16:30 CET+01:00
Deutsche Bahn prepares for its next high-speed rail project - in the middle of California.

Can German engineering expertise bring the the US's first high speed rail project into fruition?

Deutsche Bahn thinks so, as its subsidiary, DB Engineering, has recently won a €26 million “early train operator services” contract to help enact the primary part of the California High Speed Rail Project. Upon completion, the turbo-train will connect San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2 hours and 40 minutes at speeds of up to 350 kilometres per hour.

DB Engineering will be responsible for the first stretch between San Jose in Silicon Valley to Bakersfield in the centre of the Golden State, set to be completed in 2025.  

The company competed in a bid with rail operators from Spain, Italy and China, but won in part due to its expertise. Deutsche Bahn said in its application that it “runs a powerful transportation network of more than 20,500 miles and about 30,000 trains per day” and offers “the competence of the largest passenger and freight rail transport in Europe.”

The company is no stranger to international projects, also being behind Sydney's metro system, high speed trains in China and serving as a “shadow operator” for the Long Distance Railway in Qatar.

It might not be the only German company on board with the rail, as engineering firm Siemen's Sacramento-based subsidiary is expected to be part of the bidding process for the actual trains themselves.

To showcase its building skills, the company already displayed a mock-up model of the train on the California capital's steps. Due to federal “Buy America” regulations, the trains would have to be produced locally, which Siemens officials have also argued would give a financial boost to the region.

A German model

Before DB officially became involved, the project was already modelled after German or French high-speed intercity rails, which share train tracks with regional trains. That means existing tracks in urban areas - such as those from Caltrain in San Francisco's Peninsula - would only have to be renovated.

The idea for German-esque high-speed transit in California is not a novel one. The state established a High-Speed Rail Authority in 1997, yet it was not until 2008 that state residents voted in favour of constructing a High-Speed Rail on a state ballot. Back then, it was anticipated to cost $42.6 billion and be completed in 2020.

Originally approved by California voters in 2008, the project has come under criticism from those worried that already-high housing prices in San Francisco and San Jose could skyrocket if the job market opens up to commuters just an hour away by train. Naysayers have critiqued potential noise pollution, insufficient funds, and a likely lack of ridership, complaints that the Rail Authority has dismissed.

The project's business plan foresees nearly 19 million passengers by 2029. Supporters say the project is past due, with California's population expected to swell from the current 39 million to 60 million by 2030, and car congestion already at high levels.

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