Friday, May 8, 2009 | 2 a.m.
The Federal Railroad Administration may be overseeing a huge train wreck in Southern Nevada.
Last week, the agency conducted a public hearing on a draft environmental impact statement on a high-speed train proposal developed by DesertXpress, a privately held company backed by Sig Rogich and Tony Marnell.
The hearing was well-attended. Federal officials anticipated about 50 or 60 people would show up for the hearing at the Hampton Inn Tropicana. Close to 100 were present.
After a 30-minute presentation explaining the DesertXpress plan, the public was invited to weigh in.
The DesertXpress plan first surfaced a couple of years ago when the company began the environmental impact statement process.
The plan, a little more refined now than it was months ago, proposes an electric or diesel-electric train capable of traveling 150 mph between Victorville, Calif., and Las Vegas along a 180-mile twin-track route primarily along Interstate 15.
The statement addresses stations and maintenance facilities on the Victorville and Las Vegas ends and the route includes an assortment of alternative track placements that would be nailed down as the proposal progresses.
For example, a portion of the route between Primm and Mountain Pass just south of there includes some options. One route would make a 1.5-mile intrusion into the Mojave National Preserve, but the alternative would require cutting tunnels through the Clark Mountains.
In Las Vegas, there are options to end the route close to the Strip or in downtown Las Vegas.
Twelve people addressed the public hearing and all had thoughtful insights. The general tone of their comments foreshadow the framework of the issues. Here are the key questions:
• Would rail riders in Southern California really drive to Victorville and then get on a quick train ride to Las Vegas, where they would have no vehicle?
• Should the proven technology planned by DesertXpress be used for a high-speed line linking Las Vegas with Los Angeles or should the limited right-of-way go for a high-tech magnetic levitation train or some other emerging technology?
• Should the nation’s taxpayers foot the bill for what is a California and Nevada problem, as it would if the maglev option goes forward or should privately financed entrepreneurs take the risk — and reap the rewards if it’s a success?
They’re tough questions, ones the Federal Railroad Administration couldn’t answer at the April 28 hearing. A representative of the agency said it isn’t in the business of picking winners and losers in what amounts to a race to develop high-speed transportation.
All it is doing is making sure desert wildlife is protected, cultural resources maintained and artifacts preserved.
Because the bulk of the property to be used for the route is public land — most of it I-15 right-of-way — it has to go through the federal government’s environmental protection process.
Although the high-speed race could have a photo finish, at least it appears that it’s a two-team contest. At one time, Amtrak, which discontinued its Desert Wind service between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City by way of Las Vegas in 1997, was backing a proposal to use conventional rail on existing tracks, with the addition of a parallel “passing line” through the Mojave National Preserve.
One of the reasons why the existing line couldn’t be used as it is now is because freight trains have priority on the track and the delays that would occur because of the steep grades of the route would result in trips taking six to seven hours between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
A sidetrack that would enable passenger trains to pass the freight presented an option, but it still would have required an environmental impact statement on land in the heart of the preserve.
When the DesertXpress arrived on the scene, it proposed using all-new tracks and equipment.
But critics immediately jumped on the shortcoming of the route starting in Victorville.
For those unfamiliar with the geography, Victorville sits about 10 miles from the crest of a big hill, Cajon Pass, which empties into the San Bernardino Valley, the gateway to Southern California’s population centers.
To the west of Victorville is Palmdale and the northern end of those population centers. With the exception of Barstow, Victorville is the last population center on the road to Las Vegas.
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.
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.
One other thing to remember is that just because we as Las Vegans might think a high-speed train to L.A. is a great idea, the project is by no means a slam dunk.
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).
There’s also no certainty that California would back maglev because it is embarking on its own high-speed train system along the coast and to major population centers with technology that wouldn’t be compatible.
DesertXpress officials also produced a single-page bullet-point piece casting doubts on the maglev with a primary focus on expenses. At $60 million to $199 million a mile, a 200-mile maglev line would cost $12 billion to $40 billion, they say.
They also say maglev is not completely proven despite the commercial operation of a system near the Shanghai, China airport. Temperature extremes, high winds and dust in California and Nevada provide some additional operational unknowns. And there are no U.S. safety standards for maglev technology.
But, if a maglev were available from Los Angeles or Anaheim to Victorville, DesertXpress would be interested in providing intermodal transfers.
It all goes back to the original question: Should the public get behind a proven, reliable system that has obvious location flaws that could be done in a few years or go for a technological leap that would have more commercial appeal, but take longer to build at a far greater cost?
Good luck, rail regulators.
Richard N. Velotta covers tourism for In Business Las Vegas and its sister publication, the Las Vegas Sun. He can be reached at 259-4061 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.