We talk a lot about the IoT (Internet of Things)—connecting everything to everything, providing access to information and control of just about every electrical system in the world. A major driver for IoT connectivity is customer convenience and communication. Another is control, precise and remote, of those activities that our appliances and equipment perform. Combine those two functions and you can make many daily operations much easier and more productive for a wide range of people and equipment.
Although rail traffic in the United States is much less per capita than in Europe and Asia—if you discount subway/elevated rail systems in major cities—world-wide railroad use is up. Onboard connectivity and access to online services to improve passenger rail traffic and optimize freight management are partially the stimulus for this increase, both in passenger and freight traffic.
Demand for digitalization of rail systems to enhance customer convenience is rapidly increasing across both freight and passenger operations. Widespread usage of telematics, predictive analysis, sensor technology, and IoT integration has the potential to increase passenger traffic and freight movement, and lead to additional infrastructure construction and rolling stock builds. A recent analysis by Frost & Sullivan predicts that digitalization will be one of the major factors driving a 15.2% increase in global passenger traffic and a 19% increase in global freight traffic by 2025.
European freight operators are retrofitting their large fleets of freight locomotives and cars with advanced sensor technology and telemetry to track the movement of freight cargo, and also monitor temperature, humidity, and other factors to help optimize the transport and distribution process. Digitalization is also set to improve the passenger experience through connectivity solutions such as onboard Wi-Fi, entertainment portals, and mobile networks. These aspects and future potential for upgrades are becoming an integral part of rolling stock production and railway infrastructural projects.
Electrification of railways is on the upswing globally, triggered by the move toward greener rail systems and air quality improvement. Replacement of diesel-powered locomotives with electric or alternative powertrains such as LNG (liquefied natural gas) and hydrogen power is growing in popularity, following the successful operations of hydrogen-powered rail vehicles in Germany. Europe and Asia are leaning toward complete electrification of passenger rail systems.
In North America, sales of high-powered Tier 4 locomotives are projected to improve as a significant number of units are nearing retirement. The European Union, on the other hand, is promoting electrification and greener rail systems, such as hybrid locomotives and hydrogen-powered trains. The Asia-Pacific and Latin American regions are slated to see higher uptake of multiple units, as well as witness growth in rail infrastructure.
Regardless of location, a major stumbling block to improved rail infrastructure is funding. While Japan, China, and parts of Europe are served by high-speed rail lines, funding for similar work is lacking in the U.S. In California, where several large cities are competing for transportation dollars, a planned high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to Sacramento and San Francisco has been more like a roller coaster: lots of ups and downs but little distance covered.
The dream of many Californians—especially central valley politicians—of a series of “bullet trains” zipping up and down the spine of the state, connecting the state capital with the population centers of Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco, has been analyzed for years. Plans made, plans modified, plans discarded. Again, funding was the (rail) roadblock. Aggravated by cost increases projected annually, the project has been scaled back, delayed, and threatened with cancelation.
California lawmakers made plans to transfer billions of dollars from the bullet train to smaller, quicker to complete rail projects in Southern California and the San Francisco area, and that could crush the dreams of high-speed rail.
In early 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom released a plan to direct all of the remaining bullet train funds into the San Joaquin Valley and build a partial high-speed system from Bakersfield to Merced at a cost of $20.5 billion.
Meanwhile, other politicians see improving passenger rail from Burbank to Anaheim, relieving congestion on the busy Interstate 5 corridor, as a better investment, especially before the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
In Los Angeles, Union Station turns 80 years old this year and the state is investing more than $4.4 billion in Southern California regional rail, transit, and freight mobility projects, many of them helping to propel movement in and around Union Station.
But other rail projects are also under consideration and, in a few cases, under contract. The Foothill Gold Line Construction Authority Board of Directors has awarded the main design-build contract for the Foothill Gold Line light rail extension. The contract includes an $805.6 million base scope for the first nine miles of the project from Glendora to Pomona, with a two-year contract option to complete the full 12.3-mile project to Montclair for a total contract amount of $1.1870 billion if additional funds are secured by September 2021.
The base scope includes all elements of design and construction for the first nine-mile segment, including relocation of the existing freight track, installation of the light rail track system, four new light rail stations (in Glendora, San Dimas, La Verne, and Pomona), improvements at 40 grade crossings (nearly half with new or renovated bridges) and much more. The contract option would extend the work of the design-build team to complete the full 12.3-mile project to Montclair and add stations in Claremont and Montclair.
Foothill Transit Constructors, a Kiewit-Parsons Joint Venture won the bid. It successfully completed the first two segments of the Foothill Gold Line project, on time and under budget, in 2003 and 2015.
The project will begin major construction in 2020 and take approximately five years to complete to Pomona and eight years to complete to Montclair, if the contract option is activated. It is estimated that during construction alone, the Foothill Gold Line project will create as many as 16,000 jobs and up to $2.6 billion of economic output for the region, as well as up to $1 billion in labor income and potentially $40 million in tax revenue, according to an economic study by Beacon Economics.
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