Las Vegas Sun

May 20, 2019

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Another train enters fray for L.A. to LV route

Developer wants federal money to conduct study

Click to enlarge photo

Books and articles on high-speed trains cover the proposals for a line between Southern California and Las Vegas. Five proposals are in various stages, but none has broken ground yet.

TO RECAP

Five existing Nevada-Southern California transportation proposals:

DesertXpress: A traditional steel-wheel-on-rails high-speed train between Las Vegas and Victorville, Calif., proposed by Las Vegas-based DesertXpress Enterprises. The company says ground will be broken later this year and that service would begin by 2014. The company also has proposed a 50-mile extension from Victorville to Palmdale, Calif., that would link the train to the planned California High-Speed Rail system.

American Magline Group: A magnetic-levitation system proposed to link Las Vegas with Anaheim, Calif. Supported by the California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commission and the Nevada Transportation Department, federal funding for environmental reports and engineering for the first 40 miles of the project between Las Vegas and Primm has been delayed by government officials.

Las Vegas Railway Express X Train: A traditional rail proposal using refurbished trains and cars on a line managed by the Union Pacific Railway between Las Vegas and Union Station in Los Angeles.

D2 Holdings’ Z-Train: A proposal similar to the X Train.

Genesis High Speed Rail America’s Desert Lighting: A high-speed rail proposal on dedicated tracks that incorporates a T-shaped line that links Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles along Interstate 10 and U.S. 95. Genesis is seeking federal funds to study the route and make necessary environmental assessments.

There’s a new player in the Great Race to provide rail service between Las Vegas and Southern California. It has an interesting route proposal going for it, but it’s late to the party for money.

Genesis High Speed Rail America LLC wants to build the Desert Lightning, a high-speed train that would use steel-wheel-on-rails technology with 200 mph electric locomotion.

That technology puts it in the same category with what is widely considered the front-runner in the race, DesertXpress, which was reported ready to break ground on its Las Vegas-to-Victorville, Calif., track this year.

Like DesertXpress, Desert Lightning would use a dedicated line. But Desert Lightning veers in a different direction with a route proposal that makes sense for the long haul.

Duane Wilder, chairman of Genesis, proposes a T-shaped route going south from Las Vegas, parallel to the Colorado River and U.S. 95, just east of Mojave National Preserve. Near Interstate 10, the line would intersect with an east-west line running parallel to the freeway between Los Angeles and Phoenix.

In theory, then, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas would be connected by high-speed rail, putting the three cities within an hour and a half of one another — a great benefit to Las Vegans and tourists. The route could capture the Palm Springs, Calif., market, which includes wealthy retirees who fit nicely in the gaming industry’s demographic sweet spot.

Where the plan falls flat is that Wilder and his impressive list of consultants and partners want federal money to study the proposal. He said about $35 million would cover the study’s cost.

Wilder said he expects the train would be built as a public-private partnership. He said the study would determine whether it would be best to use proven European technology or proven Japanese technology.

“I’ve ridden on both of the trains,” Wilder said. “I can’t say which one is better than the other and part of it could depend on the terrain, so the exact route also would be studied.”

He wants to focus on connecting airports as well as cities.

Wilder thinks the United States isn’t ready for maglev, and he doesn’t think it’s a proven technology, even though it has been successfully running in China for years.

Wilder said once a study is completed, investors would get onboard with what could be a $35 billion to $40 billion project.

Although Wilder says it’s never too late to look at a good project, Genesis and Desert Lightning may be left at the station.

Representatives haven’t spelled out details of their construction financing. And DesertXpress — which some wags are calling “the train to nowhere” — says it has investors ready to build the line and buy the train sets. Although skeptics won’t be convinced it’s going to happen until they see the golden spike driven into the ground and trains coming from both directions, it looks like the project is real.

If Desert Lightning succeeds in getting the study money — and it should ask the folks at the American Magline Group, backers of a Las Vegas-Los Angeles maglev proposal, about how easy it is to get a check from the government — it would still take years to get the environmental permits and engineering completed.

The maglev group is still awaiting funding that was promised years ago. Even prodding from Gov. Jim Gibbons and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto last month produced no results.

The U.S. Transportation Department recently outlined where its first round of $80 million in high-speed rail grants would go, and there’s nothing earmarked for Nevada or Southern California.

The biggest chunk of the money is going to benefit one of Las Vegas’ biggest tourism rivals, Orlando, Fla. The department is giving $66.6 million for preliminary engineering for a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando.

Another $6.2 million is going to California’s Capitol Corridor, the link between San Francisco and Sacramento. And $5.7 million has been allocated for environmental assessments for new stations for a route between Milwaukee and Madison, Wis. New York and New Mexico also got grants.

Further down the scorecard are the competing low-speed train proposals: cruise ships on rails making 5 1/2-hour trips between L.A. and Las Vegas on Union Pacific Railroad tracks.

Moving passenger trains on that line has been problematic because Union Pacific gives priority to moving freight. Amtrak was often delayed when it ran the Desert Wind from L.A. to Salt Lake City via Las Vegas in the 1980s and 1990s. Amtrak abandoned the route in 1998.

The two new players planning low-speed train excursions are Las Vegas Railway Express’ X Train, which plans to shuttle passengers to Las Vegas in a party atmosphere aboard double-deck passenger cars expected to be pulled at a maximum speed of about 80 mph, and D2 Holdings’ Z-Train, a nearly identical proposal to the X Train that company leaders say was hijacked by their rivals.

Lawsuits between X Train and Z-Train have been resolved and both companies have agreed to quit making defamatory comments against each other, said Bruce Richardson, Z-Train spokesman.

“Everybody is going to move forward and right now, it looks like it’s going to be up to the Union Pacific as to what happens next,” Richardson said. “Now that all the litigation is aside, we have recontacted Union Pacific and said, ‘Let’s sit down and talk.’ We’re waiting for a response from them.”

Union Pacific hasn’t commented on the status of its negotiations with X Train or Z-Train, so it’s unclear where using those tracks stands.

So the scorecard shows two low-speed excursion trains in a holding pattern and three high-speed proposals in various stages of development, one of them with a superior route structure (Desert Lightning), one with superior technology (maglev) and one with superior financing at the ready (DesertXpress).

And for the time being, potential customers are still waiting for any train to come in.

A version of this story appears in this week’s In Business Las Vegas, a sister publication of the Sun.

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