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SmartRail Speaks: Frank Vacca, Chief Program Manager, California High-Speed Rail Authority.

Posted by Luke Upton on Jul 16, 2015

" need to clearly articulate the need and benefit to the public so people understand why high-speed rail is better than the alternatives"


California High-Speed Rail is one of the USA’s most ambitious, innovative and for some controversial rail projects and we today we gain an exclusive insight into the project from Frank Vacca, Chief Program Manager of the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSR) and a keynote speaker at SmartRail USA (Charlotte, NC, October 28-29 2015). A 35+ year veteran of commuter, inter-city and high-speed rail, prior to joining the CHSR, Vacca was Chief Engineer of Amtrak. He joined CHSR the organisation responsible for planning, designing, building and operation of the first high-speed rail system in the nation in 2012. The network will run from San Francisco to the Los Angeles basin in under three hours at speeds capable of over 220 miles per hour. The system will eventually extend to Sacramento and San Diego, totaling 800 miles with up to 24 stations.

In addition, the Authority is working with regional partners to implement a state-wide rail modernization plan that will invest billions of dollars in local and regional rail lines to meet the state’s 21st century transportation needs. Hear what Frank has to say in this wide ranging and detailed interview with SmartRail World Editor Luke Upton...

Luke Upton (LU): Thanks for taking the timeto speak to me today. As means of an introduction, perhaps you could share with your duties with the California High-Speed Rail Authority?

Frank Vacca (FV): Not a problem Luke, as the California High-Speed Rail Authority (Authority) Chief Program Manager, my primary responsibility is to deliver the California high-speed rail program. Phase 1 will stretch 520 miles from the TransBay Transit Center in downtown San Francisco to Union Station in the heart of Los Angeles, and provide a non-stop, one-seat ride between the regions. Phase II will eventually extend to Sacramento and San Diego to complete the 800-mile program. My main task is to get the project built and operational. This includes all of the supporting delivery groups such as planning, engineering, environmental, right of way acquisition, construction and construction management, operations and maintenance.


Crews are relocating storm drains in downtown Fresno, California where the current storm drain system runs along route planned for high-speed rail. The old drains are being removed and new ones installed nearby. Streets have to be closed down during construction. When the work is completed the streets will be repaved.

LU: You recently announced details of your Rail Delivery Partner (RDP), just how important is this relationship?

FV: The business model currently being used by the Authority is to ensure that we stay lean and mean, while at the same time, tapping into experts in international high-speed rail delivery and other disciplines as part of our consultant force. This ensures that while we have state employees making state decisions, much of our support and technical expertise is coming from our partners. Our contract with the Rail Delivery Partner (RDP) will allow us to expand our approach and not only do planning and preliminary engineering, but also include construction and delivery, which is coming from the private sector. Once the system is operational, we also plan to have a private sector operator (concessionaire), private sector maintenance provider, and of course, a private sector construction contractor. Essentially, the $67.5 billion high-speed rail program is being delivered by a public-private partnership that brings high-speed rail to California on time and on budget, while at the same time, being good stewards of taxpayer dollars

LU: Why has the US taken so long to start high-speed rail projects compared to other Western countries?

That’s a very good question. For the last 60 years, the U.S. has been primarily focused on building the interstate highway system and our airline infrastructure network for transporting people. That has set the tone for the nation to look to road and air as the primary means of passenger transportation, with rail being relegated to more of a freight role. As a result, the current passenger rail systems throughout the nation have fallen by the wayside. A more balanced transportation policy would utilize each mode for their most efficient use – what I call their sweet spot. Currently, the road system is best for transporting people locally, and the air system certainly is the most efficient at long trips over 600 mile distances. High-speed rail would be most efficient on those trips from approximately 300-600 miles, which is the approximately distance between San Francisco and Los Angeles where we are building high-speed rail now. This is also why other states are also looking at high-speed rail systems to connect their major regions together as an alternative to flying or driving.

Education about how high-speed rail systems work is critical to supporting and developing high-speed rail in the U.S. People still think that passenger rail systems should be built and operated like a profitable private freight railroad, but the business models for them are very different. The U.S. freight railroads are the envy of the world because our freight operators deliver more freight, more efficiently and more profitably than anyone else. Unfortunately, that model does not work for passenger railroads where the capital investment is so high that they can’t recover investment costs from the farebox and still turn a profit.

Many high-speed rail systems around the world recover their operating and maintenance costs from their farebox – i.e. the cost of the ticket to ride. Approved by California voters in 2008, Proposition 1A, also known as the Safe, Reliable, High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century, legislates that we must operate the California system without a government subsidy. Fortunately, all of our revenue and ridership models – independently verified by a number of third-party groups, including the Government Accountability Office (GOA), clearly indicates that will not be a problem.

LU: Thanks, so what has made California an American pioneer in high-speed rail development?


In June, workers began the process of constructing the foundation for the 1,600 foot Fresno River viaduct that will eventually cross the Fresno river near Madera, California. Crews started by assembling the rebar cages and digging the holes for the production piles, which will serve as the foundation for the bridge columns.

FV: There are three key reasons why California will be the first state in the U.S. with a high-speed rail system.

The first is leadership. California has long been a national leader in innovative solutions to address the needs of our population, and on high-speed rail, we are leading the charge with commitment and steadfast support from the top of both the state and federal governments. Governor Jerry Brown has been a long-time, major supporter who sees high-speed rail as a vital tool in planning for the future of California in terms of handling population growth and curbing environmental challenges. In 2009, under direction by President Obama, we were provided with a $3.3 billion federal grant through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). And in 2014, Governor Brown delivered and ongoing stream of cap and trade proceeds through the California budgetary process that has provided us with a steady stream of revenue to build high-speed rail. Without that kind of leadership and vision, you can’t get to first base.

Second, you need to clearly articulate the need and benefit to the public so people understand why high-speed rail is better than the alternatives. In California, roads are bogged down and crowded with traffic way beyond their capacity, and the airports are some of the most congested in the country. We also expect the population to increase in California. Within 25 years, our population will grow to over 50 million people, and we can’t move that many people with the existing transportation infrastructure we have today. High-speed rail will be the cheapest solution when compared to the amount of road and airport construction needed to meet the same transportation capacity. Building more highways, runways and airport terminals will cost more than $158 billion, which is two to three times more than the cost of high-speed rail. While we still have a lot of work to do to reach out to members of the public, Californians do recognize the need for innovative solutions, which was reflected in the yes vote for Proposition 1A that devoted $9 billion as an initial state investment in the program.

California also currently has some of the worst air quality in the country, and the Central Valley region in particular often suffers from poor quality air days with the steady stream of cars and semi-trucks going up and down Interstate 5 and State Route 99. High-speed rail will reduce greenhouse gases and improve the air quality by taking tens of thousands of cars off the road, reducing the number of airplane flights, and using only renewable clean electric energy to power the trains, stations and other facilities. There is no question that a high-speed rail system is one of the best transportation solutions for California.

The third key element is that California is such a unique state. After all, it is the world’s seventh-largest economy with some of the largest cities in the U.S. located in both the north and the south. It is also home to world-class academic, economic and cultural centers, and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the U.S., with millions of visitors every year. Because of all this activity, high-speed rail is a perfect fit for California. High-speed rail is the ideal solution that will transform our state, tie our regional economies together like never before and it will support a number of critical areas, such as improving transportation connectivity, reducing greenhouse gases, creating thousands of jobs and small business opportunities across the state and help us meet our future transportation needs.

LU: And to finish up, what’s the next major milestone in CHSR development plan?

FV: We presently are under construction for the first 100 miles of infrastructure in the Central Valley, which will be utilized as our test track to certify our high-speed trainsets. As part of this activity, we have been able to pump millions of dollars back the Central Valley region. Today, we have 65 certified small businesses working on the first construction package with $307.5 million in commitments. Because the Central Valley region has been particularly slow to recover from the effects of the great recession, it’s been a commitment of the Authority and our partners to provide economic growth and activity in the region. This has resulted in over $92 million in commitments going back directly to the two counties where the first construction package is located. Statewide, we have over 219 certified small businesses working on the high-speed rail program, with over 32 prime contracts with commitments of $29 million.

The next major milestone is the release of a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI), which will solicit input from the private sector and industry-at-large on the development and maintenance of potential contract and procurement strategies that can help us complete the Initial Operating Segment (IOS) of high-speed rail. We’re looking for innovative ideas that will reduce costs, accelerate construction and include a long-term maintenance plan once high-speed rail becomes operational. This will clearly provide a major step in completing a significant portion of our program with a public-private partnership. We look forward to moving forward on this procurement by the end of the year.

We are also working with our local and regional transportation partners across the state to prepare to eventually connect with the high-speed rail system. In the short-term, the Authority is also working with these partners to provide upgrades to their systems to provide immediate benefits to users, such as electrification of the Caltrain corridor in the Bay Area and the purchase of new, clean Tier 4 engines for L.A. Metrolink.

One of the projects we are implementing with our local partners is grade separation projects. Currently, grade separations account for the majority of accidents between trains and cars and pedestrians, which can result in significant damage and loss of life. Because the high-speed rail system will be fully grade-separated (existing roadways will be aligned over or under the railway eliminating crossings), we are working with our partners throughout the state to build or eliminate crossings. In total, between the Bay Area and Southern California, we are looking at examining or eliminating over 100 grade crossings, including some crossings particularly in Southern California that were the scenes of some major accidents in 2014. We will also partner with those agencies to install quad gates, which will block all lanes of traffic on both sides of the track and is anticipated to reduce collisions by 98 percent.

We are also working to implement Positive Train Control (PTC) on areas of our partners systems where we will be integrating our operations. PTC is an automatic train control system that will prevent collisions between trains, over-speed derailments and other hazards or area of caution around the system. The Federal Railroad Administration is requiring that all new passenger rail systems being built in the U.S. have PTC, and is requiring that existing passenger rail systems implementing PTC systems. Through the 2012-13 Budget Act (Senate Bill 1029), Governor Brown allocated billions of dollars into infrastructure investments through the state, with a portion of that money devoted to installing PTC on existing programs. Some systems, like Caltrain, are already underway with installing their PTC systems. Others are gearing up to get underway.

LU: That's great, thank you very much. Looking forward to hearing more in Charlotte in October at SmartRail USA.

Frank Vacca, Chief Program Manager of the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSR) is a Keynote Speaker at SmartRail USA Congress & Expo, Charlotte, North Carolina, 28-29th October 2015 and will presenting on 'Ground-breaking passenger rail projects: The future is now.' SmartRail USA is the only show dedicated to driving innovation in passenger rail in the US. And, the only show of its kind that’s free!

SmartRail USA Congress and Expo 2015


You may also be interested in:

$700m California High-Speed Rail contract won by international team.

Ground broken on pioneering USA high-speed rail project.

Procurement underway as California project seeks 95 high-speed trains.


Topics: SmartInterviews

Luke Upton

Written by Luke Upton

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