Las Vegas Sun

March 3, 2024


Trade-offs between technologies include speed, cost

Backers of each project find fault with the way the other one would work

Enlargeable graphics: Maglev and DesertXpress

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It’s a tale of two trains.

One would be a conventional steel-wheels-on-rails model that would move faster than any train operating in the West, powered by electricity or a diesel-electric hybrid locomotive.

The other wouldn’t use rails — or wheels. Its cars would be propelled by magnetic levitation, or maglev, and would float on a cushion of air, propelled by magnetic fields generated by electricity. And it would be really fast.

These are the two technologies that have emerged as contenders to whisk thousands of gamblers from Southern California to Las Vegas on high-speed trains.

Proposals for high-speed trains were aired in the late 1970s as traffic from the market that supplies one-third of the city’s visitors grew on Interstate 15. Today, about 80,000 vehicles a day use I-15 after traffic peaked at about 97,000 a day in July 2005.

As more people took to the highway, 10-hour drives between Los Angeles and Las Vegas instead of four became common on busy weekends.

A fast train, like Japan’s “bullet train” or Europe’s many high-speed options, seemed a workable solution to the problem.

Maglev technology dates to '60s

A maglev proposal developed by the California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commission in partnership with American Magline Group took the lead, using technology developed in Germany in the late 1960s.

Germany’s Transrapid’s evolving technology was used to build the world’s only commercial maglev line in operation, a 19-mile-long system linking Shanghai and Pudong International Airport.

That system, now in its ninth upgrade, is what American Magline wants to build between Anaheim and Las Vegas.

The maglev looks like a monorail, but the technology is much different.

In the Transrapid system, passengers sit inside a vehicle that is a part of an electric motor and is levitated over an I-shaped guideway. An onboard computer system controls levitation and adjusts magnetic force of a set of onboard electromagnets as they move along the guideway.

The propulsion concept is built on the basics of magnetism discovered by children: Magnets either attract or repel each other, depending on the alignment. In this case, the magnets are much larger and computers control the timing and power of the electromagnets so that regardless of load and speed, the vehicles maintain a 10-millimeter gap between the vehicle and the guideway.

Because there are no moving parts or friction, maintenance costs are greatly reduced. Most of the electronic parts are mounted in the vehicles or the guideways and can be changed out as easily as changing a car battery.

People who have ridden the Shanghai maglev say it is smooth, quiet and comfortable. Despite speeds of 300 mph, passengers don’t need seat belts and can walk up and down the aisle when the maglev train is in motion.

Because there is no contact between the vehicle and the guideway, it’s quiet along the track as well. When a maglev train passes by, people nearby will hear the whoosh of the vehicle displacing the air around it.

Maglev tracks between Anaheim and Las Vegas would be elevated to prevent grade-crossing mishaps.

American Magline officials say the surfaces of their low-maintenance track could house solar panels that could help power the system. Instead of a sprawling grid of photovoltaic panels, the maglev line could be one long electricity-producing panel. In addition, maglev proponents have said that if a network of transportation lines could be developed nationwide like the interstate highway system, the guideways could house electric power conveyance as well — a nationwide power grid you could ride.

The fact that the American Magline’s maglev proposal has been on the drawing board for years and hasn’t gotten far is why some backers have switched allegiance to the conventional rail proposal developed by DesertXpress Enterprises.

Earlier proposals sputtered

The DesertXpress plan to build a high-speed line between Victorville, Calif., and Las Vegas has its roots in earlier rail proposals.

At the prodding of Sen. Harry Reid and with a ridership study commissioned by Rogich Communications in hand, an Amtrak subsidiary proposed a fast train to make the Los Angeles-Las Vegas run after Amtrak discontinued its Desert Wind train service in May 1997.

Amtrak West partnered with Talgo Inc., a Washington state-based subsidiary of Patentes Talgo SA of Madrid, Spain. Talgo and Amtrak West proposed a European-style train capable of going 80 mph to run on the existing Union Pacific track between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

But that plan sputtered when lawmakers didn’t fund Amtrak’s request and a key piece of the plan — building a parallel track for the passenger train to pass slower freight trains within California’s Mojave National Preserve — wasn’t built.

But the advantages of conventional rail were affirmed and Rogich backed DesertXpress’ proposal to build a train capable of traveling 150 mph.

The plan is simple: Build an elevated guideway along the I-15 corridor with experienced rail contractors that have established records.

Environmental permitting is nearly complete. One decision that has yet to be made is whether the trains would be all electric or a diesel-electric hybrid. Both involve proven technologies in use nationwide.

An all-electric system would require miles of catenary, the electric cable that runs above the track, or a third-rail power source. A hybrid would use diesel fuel to power the locomotive pulling the train.

As in the maglev train, passengers would be able to roam the aisles despite the high speed. DesertXpress officials envision a party atmosphere on board and the potential of casino companies arranging to hand out room keys and take show and dinner reservations during the 84-minute trip across the desert.

Both projects draw criticism

The downside of each system is reflected in the criticisms American Magline and DesertXpress have for each other’s proposals.

The rail project is a throwback to the 19th century while maglev is 21st-century technology, the maglev project’s backers say. The maglev system is unproven in the United States, especially in a harsh desert environment with temperature extremes and wind, sand and dust, the rail backers counter.

Because the high-speed train can’t handle the steep grades of the Cajon Pass, the DesertXpress’ southern terminus would be the high desert town of Victorville. The maglev train, which could run up and down the Cajon Pass, would end at Anaheim, maglev backers say.

DesertXpress officials counters that it has a long-range plan to connect passenger traffic to the west through Palmdale, which would be on California’s high-speed train route between Los Angeles and Sacramento.

DesertXpress officials say the maglev is too expensive to build; American Magline counters that its lower maintenance costs would even things out.

Neither proposal has financing in place, but both have private partners lined up for all the components needed to build and operate.

But now, DesertXpress has a couple of key advantages — a head start in the permitting process and political backing that could funnel federal dollars to the project. American Magline can only hope that when President Obama said he wants to see the fastest train in the world built in the United States that he meant it and can influence what gets built.

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