Friday, May 15, 2009

Tough Decisions Loom for Vegas HSR

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

In the wake of the recent scoping meetings for the DesertXpress plan, the Las Vegas Sun has offered a interesting overview of the status of Vegas HSR plans. Despite the silly "train wreck!" framing (really? are LV Sun editors the first people to ever think of that for a story on passenger rail?!) the article actually does a decent job of laying out some of the issues the scoping process has revealed.

Although the skeptics have good reason to question whether passengers would make the drive to Victorville to board a train, it is the best place to put a train station when you’re on a budget as DesertXpress is.

The developers are no dummies. They know it would make more sense to take the train line into the Los Angeles Basin. But the cost of taking the line down Cajon Pass is as steep as the highway grade and the company is content to finance the route to Victorville and expand to L.A. later.

The draft environmental impact statement has independent ridership studies that say Southern Californians would drive to Victorville to board a train to Las Vegas. The independent analysis was ordered because they, too, were skeptical about that.

I can't say I am terribly familiar with this independent analysis. Given the long travel times that can be experienced on Interstate 15 during the weekends, a high speed train would be a compelling option even if you had to park at Victorville. DesertXpress's logic that once the train is open and ridership grows, there'll be money and interest to connect it to the LA basin strikes me as sound. The article didn't mention the possibility of a cheap and easy extension of the DesertXpress route westward to the California HSR station at Palmdale, but that would pretty easily solve the problem of how to get people to the DesertXpress trains.

Meanwhile, there’s the maglev. The technology is in use in China and American Magline Group, a Los Angeles-based company, wants to introduce it to Americans between two of the nation’s greatest tourism destinations, Las Vegas and Disneyland in Anaheim.

Because millions of people visit Las Vegas and Disneyland every year, they would be able to see tomorrow’s train transportation today.

That’s one of the reasons there’s even a conversation about using federal stimulus money to move the project forward.

Because there’s possible government money involved, maglev developers aren’t as concerned about costs and are making plans to take the line all the way to Los Angeles.

But the maglev environmental impact statement is running behind the DesertXpress proposal. A meeting similar to the one that took place last week probably won’t occur for at least a year. By then, DesertXpress could have permission to move ahead with design and construction.

The maglev and DesertXpress technologies aren’t compatible, but they both want to use the same right-of-way.

I will go out on a limb - a low, thick, sturdy limb - and predict that the maglev proposal will be dead as a doornail by summer 2010. The costs are absurd. The federal government will not be in a mood to fund it, especially since no maglev project has ever been successful on this scale. If there's any chance that spending on the maglev could negatively impact federal funds for the SF-LA train, maglev will be tossed out the window quicker than you can blink. Further, DesertXpress will be closer to a shovel-ready position. Not even Harry Reid, one of the most incompetent majority leaders in the history of the Senate, will be able to save maglev by that time.

At which point another competitor to DesertXpress will make its voice heard: the airlines:

Count on the airline lobby to oppose federal funding for high-speed train transportation. Funding for a next-generation air traffic control system is so far behind that some wags are calling it a “now-gen” instead of a “next-gen” system. Airline lobbyists resent that tax money is being considered for trains when a satellite-based air traffic control system that would make air travel safer and more efficient languishes.

A US Airways executive recently asked me about the public sentiment for high-speed trains between Southern California and Las Vegas and when I told him there seemed to be some renewed interest, he told me the airlines would probably put up a fight.

He added that US Airways in particular would fight a Las Vegas-Los Angeles train because his company flies that route. The company wouldn’t mind so much if high-speed rail were considered between Dallas and Houston (where rival Southwest carries most of the air traffic) or Chicago and New York (where competitors American, Delta and JetBlue battle for market share).

I would caution taking this statement too broadly. Southwest no longer opposes a Texas HSR project, and no airline has raised an objection to the SF-LA project. In fact, as we chronicled extensively here last year, the big airlines are looking to get out of some of the short-haul routes. US Airways could fight a Vegas HSR line, but they're not exactly one of the most beloved or profitable airlines, so I'm not sure that their opposition alone is going to sink this.

If DesertXpress does become the primary candidate for Vegas HSR, which I think it will, then it would be a positive development for the SF-LA HSR project. It would create demand in Southern California for getting the SF-LA project done, especially to Palmdale, in order to link up with DesertXpress.

32 comments:

Alon Levy said...

The reason Southwest no longer opposes Texas HSR is that the current version will connect airports rather than downtowns. In Houston and San Antonion there's at least hope of extending the line downtown, but in Dallas-Fort Worth, the line would have to split in two with one half of the trains serving Dallas and the other serving Fort Worth.

The Desert Xpress people have a perfectly good reason to propose a beet field station: it's expensive to cross Cajon Pass. The T-Bone people have no such excuse.

Anonymous said...

Off subject but of interest.

At the budget sub-committee, chaired by Senator Simitian yesterday, the committee voted to provide only 1/2 of the requested budget.

The committee decided to withold approval of the other half until Jan 1, 2010, and approve it if the Authority meets certain conditions --- a proper business plan, staff plan etc.

Aaron said...

Not to ask a stupid question, but how difficult would it be to get CAHSR and the Desert Xpress people to work together such that compatible equipment is used and they can simply share track from Palmdale to LAUS? That seems like the easiest solution to me, but if the timelines are too different, it could get messy.

rydot said...

Don't gnaw on Senator Reid TOO hard there. Remember, we do have $8 + $1B/yr in nationwide HSR funds because he knew what to do when the request from the President fell into his lap.

jim said...

It seems ilke desertX will need california property - caltrans property actually - in order to operate within california. Fine, that puts california in a position to set some parameters. If you ( DX) want the OK to aquire row and operate in cali, then you must 1) take the line to a Palmdale terminus. and 2) make the system upgradable and compatible with CA HSR. Do those two things and we will 1) grant you access to row, and 2) allow you to operate your trains on our tracks to La and SF . you see, This is the kind of thinking and leadership we need in sac and we don't have it and I for one am sick to death of not having it.

jim said...

Agreements would be made as they are now made between overlapping agencies as to who can carry local traffic with a jurisdiction. DX woul have access to the cali market bit only for trips starting or ending in Nevada - no point to point travel with cali, unless an operating agreement with shared revenue is reached - like using muni fast pass on bart within sf city limits - or the fact that you can or can't ride samtrans or ggtransit point to point within sf.

Ed - Burbank said...

QUOTE>how difficult would it be to get CAHSR and the Desert Xpress people to work together such that compatible equipment is used and they can simply share track from Palmdale to LAUS?
/QUOTE>
It will be really hard to share tracks even if both DX and CAHSR have all the same equipment. The CA politicians have no interest in help Nevada gaming. In fact the Ca government will do everything in its power to make the DX train fail. The last thing Ca wants is money leaving the state. A train to LV from LA would be great, but I don’t see it happening.

Adirondacker said...

the line would have to split in two with one half of the trains serving Dallas and the other serving Fort Worth.

Why? I'm assuming it would follow the ROW of TRE. It could come in from the east, serve Dallas, stop at the airport and go to Fort Worth. Or come in from the west, serve Fort Worth, stop at the airport and go to Dallas.

The Altamont advocates seem to think a similar solution for San Jose and San Francisco would result in BETTER service for San Jose.

In fact the Ca government will do everything in its power to make the DX train fail. The last thing Ca wants is money leaving the state.

Which is why I 15 is still on the drawing boards....or that they can't look at the traffic on that overcrowded highway between Las Vegas and Los Angeles and see constituents.

Alon Levy said...

Why? I'm assuming it would follow the ROW of TRE. It could come in from the east, serve Dallas, stop at the airport and go to Fort Worth. Or come in from the west, serve Fort Worth, stop at the airport and go to Dallas.

That's not what the THSRTC is suggesting. The official map has the line going straight north from I-35 to DFW; the project advertises itself as having lines going "straight to airports." Right now the routing is advertised as subject to change pending grassroots efforts, which is code for "We have no idea what we're talking about," but it doesn't seem likely they'll have one trunk line serving Dallas, DFW, and Fort Worth.

CComMack said...

they can't look at the traffic on that overcrowded highway between Las Vegas and Los Angeles and see constituents.And nobody, not CalTrans and not DX, can look over here to Clark County and see TWO MILLION potential passengers. We may not be going in the peak directtion, but not everyone here is a fan of the Vegas Staycation, and it's not as though California is running TV ads discouraging tourism, even if gamblers are more lucrative per capita than ordinary visitors.

Much as DX is sorely lacking from the perspective of a NV resident, I can only presume that even before DX is linked into the CAHSR system, some bright soul will run a bus from LA to the Victorville terminal. This might actually coax me into making visiting LA a priority, since the prospect of 4+ hours each way on a bus LV-LA is unappealing, while a train to bus connection would be at least half-appealing.

I'd just like to emphasize one more time that there are 2,000,000 of us here, not just casinos.

Ryan D said...

I can't believe they are even considering the Maglev situation, and they have not even made mention of the CHSR project that the voters approved of and is ready to go. The obvious choice would be to run a line from Victorville to Palmdale over desert and minor obstacles than to try to run a whole other train from Victorville down the Cajon Pass, through all of east LA county and down to Anaheim. Thats a pretty obvious choice.

Also I think plenty of people would be ok with a bus service from different parts of LA area to the train station in Victorville. I am in San Diego and I would love to have some kind of train out to Vegas. The traffic on a weekend out there is no fun.

Rafael said...

Maglev is an inferior solution because its only major California destination would be Anaheim, assuming such a project would not run out of money by the time the section from Las Vegas to the CA border was built.

The utility of a transportation network is roughly proportional to the square of the major nodes in it. Advantage: steel wheels.

Add to that technology risk, the difficulty California's own CHSRA is having in securing a ROW through the San Gabriel Valley and the high cost of maglev tickets. Advantage: steel wheels.

Now that CA voters have approves prop 1A(2008), it would be foolish to pursue maglev instead of a steel wheels spur off the California network's starter line. In phase I, the Victorville DX station would serve the eastern half of the San Gabriel Valley, Riverside county and north-east San Diego county. Phase II of the California project will create an opportunity for DX for a second, more expensive HSR connector between Victorville and (roughly) Colton if that makes financial sense to them. It's entirely possible they'll just leave the SD-LV market to the airlines rather than tackle Cajon Pass - especially if one or more airlines decide to operate their own trains on DX tracks (for a fee) or, to buy blocks of seats on DX trains at a discount.

@ Ed - Burbank -

you're absolutely correct, which why California will ban all flights to Las Vegas and close I-15.

In addition, all gamblers will be legally required to fritter away their hard-earned cash in Indian casinos in California instead.

C'mon, get real. This whole concept that train service to Las Vegas would spell impending economic doom for the state of California is pure BS. Next, you're going to argue against vacations in Hawaii and trades at the NYSE as well.

It's a free country, people are entitled to spend their disposable income any way they like. It's not as if the California real estate market was anything other than a casino for the past few years.

DX anyhow plans pay for the tracks from Victorville to Barstow to Las Vegas without a single penny from the state of California. A connector between Barstow and Mojave would be cheap to construct and financed by someone else, if only because the state of California is flat broke. Plus, DX would then pay trackage fees on the California network, which will have plenty of spare capacity early on.

The real issue here is that Las Vegas is Southwest Airlines' biggest hub in the country.

Prior to the financial meltdown in the fall of 2008, McCarran was estimated to reach capacity by 2014. Figure that will still happen, just several years later. Even deep recessions don't last forever.

The multi-billion project to build a brand-new relief airport in the Ivanapah Valley next to I-15 is still active. Indeed, it is the only greenfield commercial airport being planned in the nation.

A fast HSR connection to California would sharply reduce the need for this expensive relief airport, since about 1/3 of all departures from McCarran are to destinations on the California network - many of them operated by Southwest. There is no reason, none whatsoever, for that company not to operate trains or lease seats on trains operating on the HSR network. Even for Southwest, long-distance flights are more profitable than the short-haul kind. Leveraging a California-Nevada HSR network would be a sound business decision.

flowmotion said...

@Adirondacker

Actually the State of Nevada is paying for widening I-15 within California. It's apparently far more important to them than to us.

Ed - Burbank said...

@Rafael

C'mon, get real. This whole concept that train service to Las Vegas would spell impending economic doom for the state of California is pure BS. Next, you're going to argue against vacations in Hawaii and trades at the NYSE as well. I’m not arguing that it wouldn’t be a great thing. In fact I would use it. However the reason the I-15 has not been explained in years is purely for political reasons. Politics will never be able to be taken out of the CAHSR and DX networks, even though DX is private. The only way Ca will play ball with DX is if the Federal Government mandates it.

BruceMcF said...

Ryan D said...
"I can't believe they are even considering the Maglev situation, and they have not even made mention of the CHSR project that the voters approved of and is ready to go."

These projects have been trying to get up to speed far longer than just this year. Indeed, November's vote for '08-Prop1A may be the reason the Maglev folks are pushing hard, since growing numbers will realize that the way to go for a Las Vegas HSR line is a system with a junction with the CA-HSR network.

Rafeal has previously sketched an alignment with a spur at Mojave, so SoCal trains could come up from Palmdale and then to Vegas, and NoCal/CV down from Bakersfield and then to Vegas.

If the CA-HSR trains can operate on the DX corridor, then with the branch connection off the CA-HSR trunk corridor, the original terminus at Victorville would evolve into a spur focusing on car/bus connections, and the Mojave branch would likely end up carrying the majority of the passenger traffic.

Anonymous said...

I am so disappointed in Schwarzenegger. He is a lame duck - what does he have to lose? Why fear Las Vegas? His career is over anyway, unless he changes parties. Just come out for full legalization of casino gambling Nevada style. Las Vegas would be history and this line totally unnecessary.

Jonlin said...

I'm not too familiar with the project (I live in Seattle) so I'm curious when DX is projected to open if they get their money together quickly.

Rafael said...

@ Jonlin -

reference material:

http://www.desertxpress.com
http://www.fra.dot.gov/us/content/1703

DX hasn't set an expectation of start of service yet because it has only reached the program draft program EIR/EIS stage at this point, which means they are now actively seeking comments from communities and individuals that would be impacted by the route options.

Once the final program EIR/EIS is certified by FRA, a preferred route has been identified. DX then still needs to do project-level EIR/EIS work to specify important details such as grade separations, noise mitigation etc. on individual communities.

Given that whichever route is chosen will mostly consist of very sparsely populated desert terrain, the only real issue is going to be Barstow. This town is small and has limited water resources to enable further population growth. Nevertheless, it opposes DX and endorses maglev because the maglev project promises to build a station there.

There were plans for Indian casinos near Barstow until the two tribes involved decided against building them. Understandably, the Vegas casinos that would fund the lion's share of the DX project don't want to lend their competition a helping hand.

CComMack said...

@Anonymous 8:52

"Totally unnecessary"? Ahem? Two million people live in Clark County, NV, and apparently it's necessary to repeat this. I'm disappointed.

Alon Levy said...

Anon: if Monaco has survived the building of casinos all over the French Riviera, LV will survive legalized gambling in California.

Brandon in San Diego said...

A lot has been written here. I am not too certain much of it is very relevant.

I think people experienced with I-15 would agree expanding it would be a good thing ...if addressing traffic congestion were the objective. What gets in the way is insufficient fund, politcal will, and maybe an ounce of practicality of expanding our roadway network and downstream implications... i.e. induces more auto use and so forth. I highly doubt an observation having Nevada sucking California dollars easier is a fatal flaw outside a fraction of voters.

Maybe some don't agree with that... to each is own. Although please don't address me on that... 'cause I don't care and it really goes further off topic from this blog post.

----

What I'd like to point out is that it does behoove DX to pursue a system compatible with CHSRA for another reason not yet called out here... expertise/experience.

Two systems of similar or same makeup can draw or build on each other for lending staff expereince, track and train parts, shared maintenance facilites, and other cooperative areas. The greater degree of similarities they have together... will mean the greater opportunity to minimize various cost centers. End the end, that will mean fewer costs born by users and tax payers.

Of course, a lot remains to be advanced before such items can be intelligently discussed. We can only discuss it from 30,000 feet right now. And of course, shared maintenance facilities will mean a physical connection is necessary.

jim said...

Compatibility and a connection at palmdale or mojave is the only thing that makes even an ounce of sense. It must be mandated and california certainly has the right to do so.

BruceMcF said...

jim said...
"Compatibility and a connection at palmdale or mojave is the only thing that makes even an ounce of sense. It must be mandated and california certainly has the right to do so."

Yes, California has the right both in the sense that it is in the right, and in the sense that it is in a position to enforce it.

Adirondacker said...

Compatibility...

What are the chances of them picking a different gauge? Even then that is not a insurmountable problem. It would be better if they chose the same gauge but it has solutions. Ugly ones, but there are solutions.

Chances are very good that they will pick the same power supply. That's even less of a problem to cope with than differing track gauges. So even without talking to each other they will probably both end up using standard gauge with 25 kV 60Hz catenary. Boarding height may be different but chances are very very good that Desert Express will look to see what California picks and chose that. And since they are going for the same boarding height the same width. Even if they are STUPID enough to pick everything different it means they will have to build a very big station - maybe with 8 platforms - out in the desert, where land is cheap and no one lives, so that passengers can walk across the platform and change trains.

Brandon in San Diego said...

I have doubts the State of California would make certain requirements, assuming they are expensive onces, without providing some financial support.

I am speaking to extending the network to make a connection possible... Gold-plated stations, etc.

Rafael said...

@ Brandon -

the point of a Mojave - Barstow connector would be direct service from Anaheim/LA or SF to LV, later on from Sacramento and perhaps San Diego as well. And vice versa, Clark county residents do travel as well.

None of this transferring in the desert nonsense, please. Direct service is critical to achieving line haul times that can compete not just with car travel but also with short-haul flights. The distances are such that there is no time to waste, even at top speeds of 220mph. True bullet lines only pay for themselves if they manage to capture sufficient market share for city pairs.

There seems to be an ingrained notion that if some company owns tracks, no-one else will operate trains on them. This isn't true for freight lines and even less so for passenger-only lines. Mutual trackage rights are your friend.

Brandon in San Diego said...

^^^I think you're directing that to someone else, because I don't know how this applies to anything I wrote. I know I have never given an isolated single purpose station in the desert, or anywhere else, an ounce of credit. Is there another Brandon on here?

not for profit said...

Rafael writes:

"True bullet lines only pay for themselves if they manage to capture sufficient market share for city pairs.Actually only the Japanese Shinkansen HSR line pays for itself -- all the others are subsidized. Its one of the big lies going on that this line will ever be profitable. Why should it be? None except the exceptional Japancese Shinkansen make that goal.

Its also the reason why Sacramento and San Diego will never get service from this project.

Mr. Sustainable said...

This post raises many important issues. The Interstate Traveler Hydrogen Superhighway (HyRail) solves all of them and then some! That's why a major announcement of the first installation of the advanced technology is pending for next month. However, every corner of the United States can have the system FOR FREE! That's right, a free MagLev system for the asking! This is real!

Drop a line to Corbett@HyRail.us or ring my mobile line at 321-663-9740 and we'll talk.

jim said...

RAfael is right about that - It makes sense to have trackage rights and direct service. Thats how its done now in the US already with conventional rail and in europe with hsr.

Alon Levy said...

The TGV is profitable.

Anonymous said...

When California fully legalizes casino gambling some of those 2,000,000 people in LV will be moving away. The Rust Belt comes to the Sun Belt.