Thursday, March 27, 2008

LA to Vegas: The Other High Speed Rail Project

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

The California High Speed Rail plan is not the only high speed rail project being considered in our Golden State. Two proposals are in the works to link LA to Las Vegas via high speed trains. From a recent Riverside Press-Enterprise article:

A group of private investors is proposing to finance and build a $3.5 billion electrically powered passenger train called the Desert Xpress, running along Interstate 15 from Victorville to Las Vegas.

At the same time, a commission of California and Nevada officials is seeking to build a maglev train that uses magnetic forces to silently propel cars at 300 mph along a route from Anaheim to Las Vegas.

The Desert Xpress, which would average 100 mph, is undergoing an environmental study by the Federal Railroad Administration. The study will be released next year and used by various federal agencies to analyze the project.

The maglev train also is under environmental review, although the study is two to three years from completion. The idea that travel to Las Vegas -- a trip that 12 million Southern California residents make annually -- would be more attractive by train than by airplane and car has enticed promoters for years.

Growing up in Orange County in the 1980s and 1990s, I remember hearing almost once a year about a high speed train to Vegas. So these plans ought to be taken with a few grains of salt. Still, this is a corridor that could definitely use HSR - the traffic jams on Interstate 15 are epic.

The Desert Xpress project seems the closest to actuality. They claim to have conducted focus groups that show Southern Californians would be willing to drive to Victorville to catch a train to Vegas, and met with economic forecasters who suggest the plan is viable. $3.5 billion is a lot of money, but it's not outside the realm of possibility - especially if some of the Nevada casinos could be convinced to put up some of the funds.

The reason the train would run only from Victorville to Vegas is that it's much cheaper to build to Victorville. Construction through the Cajon Pass would be extremely expensive, and since Victorville is where I-15 currently narrows, it seems a logical place to put the route's southern terminus.

Still, not everyone thinks the Desert Xpress plan is viable:

Norm King, an associate at Cal State San Bernardino's transportation center, doubts either project is economically feasible.

If Desert Xpress is entirely self-supported, investors will seek to recover their investment from fares, said King, a former executive director of San Bernardino Associated Governments, the county's transportation planning agency.

"I just can't see that fares can even approach something that will pay for it," King said.

The maglev plan, by contrast, is promoted by a coalition of governments in Southern California and Nevada. They prefer to use the promising but extremely expensive magnetic levitation technology, which could provide speeds of nearly 300 mph to connect Anaheim to Vegas. The cost is tentatively put at $12 billion, and Congress is planning to provide $45 million to study the proposal further.

Obviously maglev has a lot of promise, despite its cost. But it is going to take federal investment to build this - neither California or Nevada are likely to be in a position to build it themselves, especially if our LA-SF high speed rail plan is approved by voters this November.

Personally I think a good solution might be to pool some federal dollars with private investment and money from CA and NV to get the Desert Xpress built and extended across the relatively flat desert to Palmdale, where it could share a station with the California high speed rail line. That would enable folks from LA to simply transfer at Palmdale, sparing them a long drive to the High Desert.

Or Amtrak could revive the Desert Wind, which was closed in 1997 due to Republican budget cuts. An overnight train from LA to Vegas would likely be popular, especially with weekend visitors.

In any case, this blog will continue to watch these plans and report on whatever develops, even as we maintain our primary focus on the LA-SF high speed route.


luis d. said...

That's great! I have a feeling that if we can pull off the LA-SF line and get it approved this Nov. that at least one of these will also be funded by someone! Mainly private investors, maybe casino's and the Federal govmt should definitely put in on it! One thing they have to make sure is to connect it with the LA-SF line FOR SURE or it will be a mess! Everything from here on Transportation wise should be connected so we don't have any gaps from one form of transportation to the other and not having to rent a car to drive to the next train. It should be, get off one train and straight to the other, not having to got to the next town to do so! I beleive California can pull these rail projects they SHOULD and soon, no more stalling!

Robert Cruickshank said...

Yeah, a connection to the LA-SF line would be really useful. Palmdale seems to be by far the best place to do this. The Desert Xpress plan is to be up and running by 2012, which seems ambitious, but that would be ahead of the CHSRA plan by several years - giving them time to pay back construction costs and plan out a link from Palmdale to Victorville.

FLUBBER said...

it might also be nice to see a little more investment on the transportation infrastructure within Las Vegas itself. Right now they've got a snazzy monorail and a popular bus system. It'd be great to see both of these, and maybe a light rail and/or streetcar system get some support before HSR is built there so that riders could easily connect to their destinations in Vegas.
However, I don't know for sure, but it may also be the case that most people are heading to casinos that are already easily accessible...