Siemens aims to make Sacramento a hub for bullet train

Armando Romero welds a train floor at the new expansion of the Siemens factory in south Sacramento on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015. Siemens hopes to produce cars for high-speed trains at the plant.
Armando Romero welds a train floor at the new expansion of the Siemens factory in south Sacramento on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015. Siemens hopes to produce cars for high-speed trains at the plant.

International rail giant Siemens wants to turn the capital city into the country’s bullet train manufacturing hub. After six years of prep work at its sprawling French Road plant in south Sacramento, the German company soon may get its chance to try.

State high-speed rail officials confirmed last week they plan to call for bids from high-speed rail companies in mid-2016 to build the sleek aluminum trains that will run at 200-plus mph between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The state is expected to need about $3.2 billion worth of train “rolling stock” to serve the new system.

That would be, by far, the biggest construction contract Siemens has won in its 30 years of train building in Sacramento. The local plant, launched to build the first generation of Sacramento Regional Transit light-rail vehicles, has expanded to build light-rail cars for numerous cities, as well as streetcars, diesel locomotives for Amtrak, and recently, a new generation of 125-mph trains for the state of Florida for a planned mini-bullet system.

Siemens has been promoting itself vigorously for the upcoming California gig. It set up a full-size mock-up of a car for the bullet train on the state Capitol lawn earlier this year, essentially on the governor’s front doorstep. And it recently bought full-page ads in several major California newspapers touting its expertise.

Notably, but more quietly, Siemens this summer opened a 125,000-square-foot manufacturing facility on its French Road plant site with the hope of using it for manufacturing high-speed trains. The facility is part of $100 million in upgrades Siemens officials say they have made to the Sacramento plant in the last decade.

Siemens also has built an electric overhead system on a short test track at the back of its south Sacramento plant. Officials say they intend to vie not only for the job of supplying the new trains, but also electrifying them.

“It would be fabulous for the region if we could get this additional business,” said Armin Kick, the executive in charge of Siemens’ Sacramento bullet train development efforts. “It would set up Sacramento as the (national) hub for high-speed technology. And these hubs, like Silicon Valley, don’t move around. It would bring additional employment and technology-driven jobs.”

Uncertainty remains about financing for California’s rail project, even as the state’s High-Speed Rail Authority launched construction this year of the first track segment of the bullet train, between Fresno and Madera. State leaders envision a system that eventually will cost $68 billion and span 520 miles, shuttling travelers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in less than three hours. A later phase of the project is planned to extend the rail system to Sacramento and San Diego.

A recent request by the rail authority for private companies to declare their interest in partnering on the project and to offer ideas on how to build the system drew three dozen responses, including from Siemens, but none of the companies offered to bring in private financing, rail officials said.

Michael Cahill, president of Siemens Industry Inc.’s mobility division, said his company didn’t propose private financing because the state’s request wasn’t specifically set up for a financial proposal. But, he said, Siemens could be interested in making a financing pitch at some point.

“We didn’t propose anything concrete in terms of private money going in, because there wasn’t an opportunity to do that,” he said. “Which doesn’t mean we wouldn’t be interested. Quite the opposite.”

He declined to describe what type of private investment his company might be willing to make.

Siemens has the backing of Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, who has pitched Siemens to the Brown administration. “They are a German company, yes, but they are planted here,” Matsui said. “They are high-quality jobs, advanced manufacturing jobs. Those are the kind of jobs we need.”

California High-Speed Rail Authority officials said last week they will pick a train manufacturing company that has “service-proven technologies with an operating history.” They have previously said Siemens’ local roots might give it some points but won’t necessarily push it ahead of competitors.

Siemens Sacramento’s parent company has designed or built bullet trains for several countries, including Spain, Russia, China and recently Turkey. But the company likely will compete against a handful of international companies that are big and experienced as well, and most of which have some form of train manufacturing presence in the United States.

Other competitors may include Bombardier of Canada, Alstom of France, Talgo of Spain, Italy-based AnsaldoBreda, Japan’s Kawasaki, South Korea’s Hyundai Rotem and two major Chinese companies.

Siemens officials estimate that the bullet train contract could bring hundreds of jobs to the company and maintain other positions it would otherwise lose as contracts are fulfilled. It also could help germinate other businesses that would spring up in town to work with Siemens on elements of the project. The Sacramento plant, which was built after Siemens won its first light-rail contract with RT three decades ago, employs 800 workers.

If it wins a bullet train contract, Siemens would expand its new high-speed rail manufacturing facility and add warehouse space, Cahill said. “Everything we do in terms of expansion, we checklist it: ‘Will this work for high speed?’ ” Cahill said on a tour of the facility.

Workers last week in the new facility were building and assembling “higher speed” trains the state of Florida plans to run, beginning in 2017, between Miami and West Palm Beach, then later Orlando. Those trains can run up to 125 mph and are giving Siemens plant workers a taste of what it takes to build bullet trains.

“A lot of the infrastructure we are putting in here (for the Florida contract) is 100 percent reusable for California high speed,” Cahill said. “A lot of the skill sets we have would be reusable.”

One difference is that the company would use aluminum skin for California’s trains rather than stainless steel for the Florida trains. “To get that extra boost to go from 125 mph to 220 mph, you do need lighter rolling stock,” Cahill said.

The company recently built a welding education center to teach advanced techniques to new hires and is partnering with community colleges in Northern California on a welding training curriculum. “We have some very particular skills you need here,” Cahill said.

High-speed rail officials said last week they would like to begin testing trains on the initial Central Valley rail segment by 2019. They said trains should be running from L.A. to San Francisco before 2030.

In the end, Cahill said, Siemens’ Sacramento plant should continue to prosper with other rail projects if it doesn’t win the big one. But he said the company’s Sacramento focus has been clear. “The investments we have made here are obviously focused on high-speed rail, and we’re very keen to make sure they bear fruition.”

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak