California’s Fire Fighting Jets and High Speed Rail System

U.S Navy P-3C Orion assigned to VP-22.Photo: U.S. Navy

Fighting fires from helicopters and planes is not new, but nothing comes close to the fire-snuffing capacity of a former freight jet. Yet, when we talking about travel, shorter travel times and faster speeds are key. When the question is choice is between jets and high speed rail, why not say “both”?

Let’s begin with a remodeled Boeing 747, called Tanker 979. It is the largest fire-fighting jet in existence on the planet. The jet is used to fight fires around the Los Angeles area. Its capabilities are already being hailed. With a price tag of $50 million to convert the jet, 20,000 gallons of flame retardant from four 16-inch nozzles may fit the bill to capture and contain fires that can span the breadth of a football field and expand three miles in length in no time.

Years ago, California was using a converted DC-10 to contain fires that had half the volume. Another plane, the P-3 Orion, built in the 1960s by the U.S. Navy for ship and submarine reconnaissance, was the ideal fire-fighting plane to combat forest fires. The P-3 Orion only had a volume of 3,000 gallons.

A helicopter dips its bucket into a river to drop water on a wildfire in CaliforniaPhoto: Hustvedt

Chasing the Jet with the Train
The California High-Speed Rail Authority Board chose to start construction of a planned connection from Los Angeles to the Bay Area in the middle of the state’s Central Valley. There is funding, and the plan establishes a framework of best uses for the funding and for stretching the track both north and south.

Authority Vice Chair Tom Umberg thinks the rail will expand across the state to join principal metropolitan areas. He also thinks that a true high-speed rail system should be connected to encompass all sections of the state of California.

Amtrak has even unveiled its own vision of high-speed rail along the East Coast. It would take 30 years to complete and has a price tag of $117 billion, but it could cut the time it would take to travel the overcrowded route from Boston to Washington, DC. The trains would travel up to 220 miles per hour. However, funding is still an issue and options are being weighed as to whether to utilize both public and private investment. Construction could begin in the year 2015.

Map of proposed route, also including the proposed Desert Express to Las VegasPhoto: CountZ


Each time the jet is operated, it costs $1 million. Its payload is dropped under pressure from onboard condensed air tanks, enabling the jet to soar 600 to 800 feet while releasing its payload. The jet is so safe, fire-fighting in the dark of night can be undertaken. The company, Evergreen, actually took on the funding of this project, believing that it would be able to recoup the research and development money it invested. The company also thought that the business of fire-fighting needed a jolt. They consider it to be their jet.

Tanker 910 during a drop demonstration in December, 2006.Photo: Alan Radecki

California has put up a lot of money to combat its emergency fires. Considering the cost globally, it would run in the tens of billions. Evergreen contemplates a fleet consisting of 10 jets, all positioned in areas around the world. They believe governmental agencies could also operate them, after re-designing them with conversion kits. The global view could become a reality sooner. Evergreen is communicating with agencies in Australia and Indonesia.

The ten rail corridors identified for potential high-speed developmentPhoto: Federal Railroad Administration

The Unchallenged Challenge

Mr. Umberg of the California High-Speed Rail Authority also thinks that other states are backing away from taking on a high-speed rail challenge. He believes that California has stood tall and that the state’s actions are reverberating in Washington. The Rail Authority would like to see construction taking place north, in the direction of Merced, including the Bay Area and south in the direction of Bakersfield and Los Angeles. Other options have been considered for initiating construction, however non-utilized money would have resulted along with state and federal requirements not being met.

Siemens Velaro in Barcelona, SpainPhoto: Kim FOR sure

Out of $4.3 billion, a whopping $4.15 billion would be needed to build the first part of the rail system, which includes:
– 2 brand new stations
– viaducts
– preparation of the site
– placing current railways and utilities in another viable location
– rearranging roadways and
– obtaining right of ways
– constructing rail bridges and
– making sure vegetation is replaced

Acela Express trains in Boston, on the Northeast Corridor, currently the only line used for high-speed rail in the U.S.Photo: SignalPAD

More Jobs Maybe?

The high-speed rail could mean thousands of jobs in an area of California that has experienced much of the national economic recession. The jobs are needed according to Don Savoy, the Business Manager and Secretary Treasurer of Ironworks Local 155. He seems to think costing for the project will be effective since most of the workers are already located right in the area of where the project will be built. Environmental reviews are being done, a requirement before construction can be undertaken.

The details of the grants awarded by the ARRAPhoto: United States Department of Transportation


The high-speed railway will be able to carry approximately 33.7 million passengers by the year 2040. It could also bring in revenue of $900 million per year. The railway actually gives a double advantage: the gridlock would be lessened both on the rails and in the skies. Passengers may see the rail as desirable; that is, having the choice of taking a short trip of 500 miles or less on an airplane or a fast train.