DesertXpress: Is this train ever going to leave the station?

Why does it seem that every logical idea in this town never sees the light of day? Go ahead and add a high-speed train connecting Southern California to Las Vegas to that dubious list. Now what?

Photo courtesy DesertXpress Enterprises LLC

The fully electric DesertXpress trains are expected to take passengers between Victorville, Calif., and Las Vegas in 84 minutes.

VEGAS INC: Rick Velotta discusses DesertXpress

VEGAS INC: Rick Velotta discusses DesertXpress

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VEGAS INC reporter Rick Velotta discusses plans and funding for DesertXpress, the high-speed rail that will connect Southern California and Southern Nevada

DesertXpress clears hurdle

Sen. Harry Reid speaks about progress made on the DesertXpress high-speed rail project on Friday, March 25, 2011, at the UNLV Science and Engineering building. Launch slideshow »

KSNV: DesertXpress EIS

KSNV: DesertXpress EIS

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KSNV coverage of announced completion of environmental impact statement for DesertXpress high-speed rail project between Las Vegas and California, March 25, 2011.

Imagine the potential for Southern Nevada’s resort community if it has access to millions of customers within a relatively easy two-hour trip on a fast train. Southern California residents could make a last-minute decision to spend a weekend in Las Vegas and get here and back quickly and safely.

And the other direction? How cool would it be for us to take off from work in the late afternoon and catch a Dodgers or Lakers game, snooze on the trip home and easily be back at work the next day?

Establishing a high-speed line between Los Angeles and Las Vegas has been an elusive dream for decades.

Amtrak service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, which took about seven hours per trip because passenger trains shared tracks with slower freight trains, ended in May 1997.

Magnetic levitation proposals sputtered for nearly 30 years.

And now, developments in the Golden State are threatening to put another obstacle in the way of plans for DesertXpress, which although the proposal has proved controversial, it is the one closest to breaking ground.

The snag is with the proposed California High-Speed Rail Authority project linking San Francisco and Sacramento with San Diego: It appears to be coming off the tracks.

First, some background on DesertXpress.

It was the first credible proposal for high-speed rail between Nevada and California.

But it had—and still has—a serious flaw: It wouldn’t go anywhere near Hollywood. The line would end at Victorville, just south of which is Cajon Pass, a steep grade from the Los Angeles Basin to the high desert. The high-speed rail technology can’t climb the Cajon Pass grade. True, there are freight train tracks between San Bernardino and Victorville, but curves would be too tight for a high-speed train to maintain speed. The whole idea of having a high-speed system from LA to Vegas is to make the trip competitive with airlines. A slowdown at Cajon Pass would defeat the purpose.

Critics have publicly flogged the DesertXpress proposal from Day 1. Who in their right mind would drive from Los Angeles to Victorville, park their car in a lot, climb aboard a train for an hour and 20 minutes and then rely on public transportation once in Las Vegas?

Forget about Las Vegans wanting to go to Southern California. Victorville as an end point has always been a nonstarter for us. We would have even less desire to find our way into the vast California megalopolis on public transportation after getting off “the train to nowhere.” Yeah, you could rent a car at the Victorville station, but what’s the point? It would be easier and less expensive to simply drive the three hours through Victorville and then on to Los Angeles.

Through all the criticism, DesertXpress officials have put forth its best little-engine-that-could impression, slogged through environmental impact reports and kept trying to convince a disbelieving public that people would actually drive to Victorville and hop a train to come here. The saving grace of the DesertXpress plan was that the company was looking to use the same technology the California High-Speed Rail Authority planned to use on its project. Victorville is 50 miles east of Palmdale, one of the proposed stops on the California line between the City of Angels and San Francisco. It would be relatively simple to build a track between Victorville and Palmdale and extend the trip by an extra 15 minutes to get passengers all the way into LA by way of the California line.

But recent developments in California have put that idea in jeopardy.

Last month, the Legislative Analyst’s Office, California’s version of the Government Accountability Office, issued a report stating that a number of problems threaten the successful development of high-speed rail in California. Proposition 1A, a referendum approved by the state’s voters in 2008, authorized California to sell $9 billion in general obligation bonds to partially fund the rail system. The state was counting on receiving federal funding and investment from the private sector to build a system estimated to cost $43 billion. Since those estimates were published, independent organizations piped up with estimates closer to $81 billion.

Meanwhile, Congress rescinded $400 million in funding for high-speed rail in fiscal year 2010 and eliminated funding for fiscal year 2011 as part of a federal budget compromise. Suddenly, California realized it wouldn’t get $19 billion in federal grant support it had expected by 2016. California scrambled, seeking ways to get at least part of the system running to generate revenue while looking at how it could cut costs and save money.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority, acting on the recommendation of federal transportation officials, approved plans to begin construction of the central part of the system, from just north of Fresno to just north of Bakersfield. Although revenue generated in fares on that $5.5 billion chunk of the line could be used to begin retiring bonds, the obvious question is how many passengers would ride on a high-speed train between Fresno and Bakersfield? No doubt, not enough to make it financially viable. Experts are even doubtful that there would be significant revenue if the line were started on the more populous, but more costly ends of the line at Los Angeles or San Francisco.

A new cost-cutting measure under study by the rail authority cuts even deeper into the DesertXpress dream of connecting Las Vegas with Los Angeles via Palmdale. In early May, the authority reintroduced a proposal to run the California line along Interstate 5, then east to Bakersfield, a shorter route previously discarded because of seismic issues and costs concerns.

That “grapevine” alignment is back in play as experts have determined that a route through Soledad Canyon over the Tehachapi Mountains into Antelope Valley and Palmdale would require extensive tunneling and elevated structures.

An authority staff report says the realignment would save “billions.” But it also takes Palmdale out of play as a stop on the California line. Angry Palmdale officials have threatened to sue the authority if the city is bypassed. With federal funding application deadlines looming, a lengthy court battle would be one more roadblock for the authority to deal with, but the fact remains that eliminating Palmdale is under consideration.

What does the management of DesertXpress think? No one would comment on the California developments, although in recent public appearances, officials have blissfully repeated that the route through Victorville is the way to go.

Unfortunately, I had also hoped to talk with them about recent concerns raised by homeowners along the proposed route into Las Vegas and how the train and its elevated track would be a noisy visible nuisance.

I also want to know what they thought of Texas developer Chris Milam’s ambitious plan to build baseball and soccer stadiums and a basketball arena at Interstate 15 and Russell Road. This is the same area DesertXpress officials have said is their No. 1 choice for a train station.

Have Milam’s people and the DesertXpress people—both represented locally by influential Sig Rogich—even spoken with each other?

And what about the status of DesertXpress’ $4.9 billion loan application through the Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing program, which provides direct federal loans and loan guarantees to finance development of railroad infrastructure?

The dream of connecting Los Angeles and Las Vegas with high-speed transportation is still possible despite California’s new problems.

All we need is for the right people to sit down in a room and work out the details to make it happen for the good of our economy. How hard can that be?

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Discussion 9 comments

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  1. Another "White Elephant" in the making. This project is the mono-rail on steroids. This "pie-in-the-sky" train will never be financially viable and will suck tax dollars from more worthy needs if ever built. With the U.S. debt at $14 trillion+ and climbing, why are the screwballs in Washington D.C. even considering such a boondoggle? Political cronyism has to be the answer. This "train" should never see the light of day unless it is built with private investment and taxpayer subsidies of no kind are involved.

  2. There has to be better ways to spend $6 billion than this mess. The problem the rails have is that they are competing with the airlines and automobile, both of which offer a greater flexibility and economy.

  3. We already have high speed travel to LA, it is call air travel. Who is in a hurry to get to Victorville, and is that worth billions? I don't buy the argument that the Desert Express would eventually be extended to LA, it remains an elusive goal in financially difficult times. If you want a partial rail ride to LA, why not extend the monorail to the airport, as should have been done in the first place.

    Personally, I would be happy to take a conventional rail ride to LA from Las Vegas, by reestablishing a train terminal near the Plaza Hotel, as was available decades ago. Now you have to travel miles outside of Las Vegas, just to catch a train to anywhere. Without simple, more affordable solutions, these travel ideas are going nowhere.





  5. Nice way for Dirty Harry's supporters to get paid off... When you get to Victorville, you're halfway to vegas anyway and you've just driven the toughest part. It's a straight shot from there. This is one of the stupidest ideas Harry has ever come up with, and that's saying a lot!!!

  6. desert doom express

    next dumb idea


  7. Anybody every thought of making a train to Phoenix, then making a line to San Diego? Yeah it would make it a two hour trip, but it would be an easier route.





  9. I don't have a problem with a trai to CA. Ihave a problem that if it only goes to barstow or victorville no one will use it.

    From those destinations u would have a 2.5 hr drive still to go see a dodger game or a lakers game. the train only cuts off the easiest part of the drive.

    The argument to this is that at some point in the future they think CA will build some other kind of high speed route to link to it. CA is in far worse financial shape than NV right now its not going to happen.

    I make this trip several times a year even air travel doesn't add up. With security having to get ther an hr and a half early and then needing to get transportation at both ends its not even a time saver. Just another way for the polititions to spend money and say it in our best interest.