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.