High speed rail mock-up at Cal Expo shows what might await California bullet train travelers

Jim Patrick, spokesman for the California High Speed ​​Rail Authority, shows the seats inside a bullet train model at Cal Expo. (Cameron Clark/The Sacramento Bee/TNS)

The plywood train mock-up in a Sacramento exhibit hall offers a glimpse of the experience that could be offered for high-speed rail passengers traveling between Merced and Bakersfield at 220 mph.

While the start of train service is at least six years away, the 68-foot, $100,000 stationary mock-up makes it clear that the California High-Speed Rail Authority is attempting to spread the message that its bullet train project is coming, despite being years behind schedule and billions over budget.


“Many people don’t even know the project is under construction, said Jim Patrick, a spokesman for the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

Authority officials aim to change that perception.

Since September they have brought focus groups consisting of hundreds of people to an exhibition hall at the Cal Expo, home of the State Fair, to view the mock-up. The media was invited Tuesday to view the mock-up, and over the summer it will be on display at the State Fair.

Patrick said most of the feedback on the plywood train car has been positive with constructive suggestions.

He said focus groups loved the playroom, a first for U.S trains, but already part of some trains in Europe. He said one issue, however, was safety concerns related to a climbing structure.

Patrick said the privacy of the cocoon seat, which is walled off on three sides, was another crowd pleaser.

Other seats displayed include premium first class, comfort, and standard seats. Instead of the seats being in separate sections, as they would be on the actual train, they were grouped all together in one section of the mock-up.

“We threw them together to have the immediate contrast of people seeing them next to each other,” he said.

The legroom was tight for many of the comfort and standard seats, between 18 inches and 23 inches, far less than airline seats where the minimum is 28 inches.

But authority officials caution the mock-up is only a rough layout of what the train could feature and nothing is set in stone.

All the passenger options couldn’t be shown in the mock-up, which at 68 feet was smaller than a standard passenger train car of 80 feet to 100 feet.

Patrick said focus groups, made up of disabled community members, were also very enthusiastic about the 36-square-foot bathroom in the mock-up, which makes the bathroom accessible for those in wheelchairs.

The train car mock-up only had one dining table and no kitchen or bar, but the actual train will have facilities to serve food and drinks, said Melissa Figueroa, chief of strategic communications for the High-Speed Rail Authority.

She said the focus group members were adamant that they wanted healthy food options from California served on the train.

“California is a farm-to-fork state and people want that represented on the train,” she said.

The mock-up train car also contained outlines of surfboards on one side and mountains on the other, representing the landscape seen on a full journey of the high-speed train between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Patrick said.

From train car mock-up to real service

It’s unclear if a real high-speed train will ever make that journey.

The cost of the full route has ballooned from $33 billion in 2008 to as much as $128 billion, leaving the authority tens of billions of dollars short.

Cost overruns, inflation, issues buying out property owners, and design changes all increased the cost of the project.

Never mind the San Francisco to Los Angeles route, the authority is still four to seven billion short for the first phase of the high-speed program. The final cost of the 171-mile route between Merced and Bakersfield is supposed to cost between $32 billion and $35 billion with a start date anticipated between 2030 and 2033.

The cost to make that segment operational was estimated at $22.5 billion only five years ago.

The feedback from the focus groups on the train design will be incorporated in the requirements for the two companies, Siemens Mobility and Alstom, that will be bidding to manufacture six trains, said Bruce Armistead, the rail authority’s chief of rail and operations delivery.

Siemens Mobility would manufacture the trains at its North American train manufacturing hub in Sacramento while Alstom would construct the cars in upstate New York.

Armistead said the authority will release bidding documents between April and June of this year and hoped to award a contract by the end of 2024.

The authority has allocated $561 million to buy the trains, part of a $3.1 billion federal grant it received last month.

Armistead said the winning bidder would create their own more advanced mock-up of the train.

He said the high-speed train would run hourly between Merced and Bakersfield in 90 minutes, cutting in half the time it takes to travel between the two cities on Amtrak.

The plan to first construct the line in the Central Valley instead of more populated San Francisco or Los Angeles has been a sore point for critics who argue that demand for the service may be small.

Armistead said that thinking is wrong.

“I think a number of people are going to come from San Francisco and LA to experience the train,” said Armistead. “And once they’ve experienced it, the demand to build the whole line goes up.”

California voters first approved a $9.95 billion bond issue for the high-speed rail program in 2008. The first trains on the full San Francisco to Los Angeles route were supposed to run by 2020.

Expansions of the high-speed train to Sacramento and San Diego, part of the original plan after the San Francisco to Los Angeles route was finished, are on hold.

High-speed rail officials said the bullet train will really happen, and service between Merced and Bakersfield is in sight. They say they are making progress on that phase of the program and are currently building viaducts and guideways on 119 of the 171-mile route between Merced and Bakersfield.

Patrick said the focus groups are part of the ongoing effort to refine the high-speed train ride and the public input when the mock-up is exhibited at the State Fair will continue that process.

“If anybody has any great ideas about train design at this point in the process, we are all ears,” he said. “We want to hear good ideas, we want to put them to use, and we want to make sure that people are super happy with these trains.”

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