Amtrak has now officially announced their request for information for a joint purchase of high speed trains by them and the California High Speed Rail Authority. The plan calls for an initial purchase of 12 high speed train sets by Amtrak and 27 by California, with a further purchase of 20 train sets by Amtrak in the early 2020s. The RFP is anticipated this September and an order placed in 2014.
On the face of it, this is a horrible plan. 220mph operation is far more than Amtrak is currently capable of doing on the Northeast Corridor and likely will not be seen within the lifespan of these train sets since the entire NEC HSR plan currently exists only as a concept. At the same time, Californian trains are likely to be burdened with requirements and equipment not needed for operations in California with a probable reduction in performance or increase in cost, though I am hopeful that it will not be significant. That aside, there does appear to be significant upsides to this joint purchase order.
To begin with, by joining with California in a purchase order supported by the Federal Railroad Authority, Amtrak will have additional clout in order to support sane Tier III regulations allowing the import of foreign designs. The fact that California has the ability, at some additional upfront construction cost, to pull out of the purchase order, a project endorsed and desired by the FRA, should the regulations become burdensome and still buy off the shelf train sets further improves their bargaining position with the FRA, who would suffer quite a good deal of embarrassment should their own actions scuttle a major project of theirs.
Secondly, the size of the order is sufficiently substantial and lengthy that domestic manufacturing of high speed train sets will stay open in America for the foreseeable future and will be more substantial than simply assembling components from overseas, as has often been the case. While I personally prefer separate orders in order to foster competition, both now and in the future, the size of this order will be one of the largest in the world and should result in significant competition on its own. Additionally, I would expect it to actually increase in size as, should XpressWest be funded and built, I anticipate them to join the purchase order, probably taking some of the early CAHSR sets for their own service.
Third, since this is partially intended by Amtrak to increase high speed service to every half-hour between New York and Washington, it raises hopes that Amtrak will standardize on one train set for the Northeast Corridor, replacing the current Amfleet Regionals with high speed trains (though this would require essentially writing off most of the ACS-64 order as a mistake). This may already be the plan, since current Amtrak NEC service is two trains per hour, or it would result in a 20 minute headway service of two express and one all stop high speed service.
To my eyes, the California order is too large as a first order and I do see this as a current bad note. 27 train sets would require either a remarkably poor utilization rate (as only 62 daily round trips are expected systemwide with the blended plan, page 4) or the more likely doubling up of train sets into 400m trains. While there is nothing wrong with doubling up train sets, I am doubtful that sufficient demand for the service will be present soon enough that it makes sense to run trains with a capacity for a thousand passengers early enough to be done as part of a first order. However, I could be wrong; the peak trip Surfliners run that many simply between Los Angeles and San Diego and while Fresno to Los Angeles is a significantly smaller market, it is possible that we may see such high levels of ridership. If so, connections to LAX via Union Station FlyAway or light rail via the Crenshaw Corridor would likely be one of the major reasons.