High-speed rail passenger service to Las Vegas: another desert mirage
In 2014, Governor Jerry Brown infamously promoted California High-Speed Rail as the best way to travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles. To justify the estimated $68 billion price tag, the governor tried to play the funny guy, asserting that “old people who shouldn’t be driving … should be sitting in a nice train car working on their iPad, having a martini.”
Now imagine high-speed rail between Southern California and Las Vegas. Instead of enduring the drive on I-15 across the Mojave Desert, people could sit in a nice train car getting a head start on a weekend of inebriation, having five martinis. As a bonus, taking the train instead of driving would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the effects of global climate change.
How compelling is the idea of high-speed transportation between Southern California and Las Vegas? In a July 10, 2017 opinion piece published in various California newspapers, political commentator Joe Mathews declared that building major transportation infrastructure to improve travel connections between the two regions “might be the most powerful current idea in California.”
Actually, the idea is neither current nor powerful. Politicians have touted it for decades, particularly since Amtrak terminated direct service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas in 1997 because of insufficient ridership. And so far the idea has failed to attract enough funding (public or private) to achieve it.
Mass transit between Southern California and Las Vegas is a vision similar to the planned high-speed rail system to connect Northern California and Southern California. Politicians and corporate executives make visionary statements – driven by professional public relations – that get overblown news coverage lacking in critical evaluation. Studies are done to prove the viability and feasibility of the project. Money is poured into planning and review. Then nothing substantial happens to overcome obvious hurdles to the vision.
California High-Speed Rail is a model for how visionary boondoggles get started. A coalition of corporations and unions teams up with politicians. They support a campaign asking voters to authorize government to borrow money and raise taxes to pay off that debt (including the interest). Voters then see well-tested rhetoric in the title of the ballot measure. Each voter takes five seconds to vote YES for imposing another tremendous debt burden on future generations.
It’s likely that one massive Joint Power Agency will eventually consolidate the ambitions of other Joint Power Agencies and ask voters to approve a massive bond measure to fund a passenger rail project between Southern California and Las Vegas. Before this campaign gets moving, the public needs to know the recent history of this idea.
Standard Passenger Rail Service
The most reasonable and achievable recent proposal for passenger rail service between Southern California to Las Vegas began moving forward in 2009 under the direction of Las Vegas Railway Express. The company has promised an adult-only experience called “the X Train,” or colloquially known as “the Party Train.” Originally the company planned to begin service in mid-2011. Eight years later the company is still promising to start soon.
In 2012, Las Vegas Railway Express Inc. reached an agreement with Union Pacific to use its existing track. The company now claims to be currently working with government agencies to “secure the necessary rights, equipment and facilities required to commence charter services in late 2017.”
As the company notes on its website, “there has been no regular passenger rail service between the Los Angeles and Las Vegas areas for over 18 years.” Amtrak operated direct passenger rail service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas until 1997, when it shut down the “Desert Wind” line because of declining ridership and cuts in government subsidies. Reportedly the service was unpopular in part because the trip sometimes lasted as long as eight hours. The train often had to yield to freight trains operated by the owner of the track, Union Pacific.
In weighing decisions about cost, convenience, and time, travelers had chosen instead to drive or fly via Southwest Airlines. Congress provided direct funding in 1999 to resume service, but it never started back up. Amtrak has no public plans to resume service to what is now described as a “shuttered, worn-down depot.”
Very High-Speed Passenger Rail Service (Maglev)
The empty desert would seem to be a relatively easy place to build a high-speed or very-high-speed rail alignment. In fact, there have been two proposals over several years to do this.
In the early 2000s, the Southern California Association of Governments and its individual member governments began considering public-private partnerships to plan, build, and operate a Maglev (magnetic levitation) train between Anaheim and Las Vegas. Congress even dedicated $45 million in 2006 for project planning, but three years later the Federal Railroad Administration had not released the funding. The private partner in the plan, a company called American Magline Group, had failed to raise enough money to qualify for the grant.
Today American Magline Group estimates a cost of $12-15 billion to build the complete project. It had estimated a cost of $12 billion in 2008. People suspect – with good reason – that the cost estimate for maglev is too low.
Remember that in 2008 supporters of Proposition 1A claimed in official voter information that a complete statewide high-speed rail system in California would cost $45 billion. Today, the Authority claims a line between San Francisco and Los Angeles – sharing track at times with commuter rail – will cost $64 billion.
High-Speed Passenger Rail Service
In 2009, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada shifted his allegiance from the maglev proposal to a more traditional high-speed rail proposal called DesertXpress, a privately-owned operation that would run from Las Vegas to Victorville. Advantages of this proposal included a lower cost (then estimated at $6.9 billion) and a more familiar and tested technology. Supposedly DesertXpress would eventually extend to Palmdale to connect with a planned California High-Speed Rail station.
In the end, DesertXpress could not qualify for a loan of $4.9 billion or $5.5 billion from the federal government to build the project, ostensibly because it would not or could not abide by a federal requirement to purchase train sets built in the United States and could not obtain an exemption. In 2015, a consortium affiliated with the People’s Republic of China became a partner and potential funding source for DesertXpress (renamed XpressWest in 2012), but the partnership ended a year later.
Why the Failure to Move Forward?
Backers of all three of these proposals claim that people will ride their system and operators will thus make money on them. The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada Las Vegas to Los Angeles Rail Corridor Improvement Feasibility Study sees the maglev proposal as feasible and desirable. The High Desert Corridor Joint Powers Authority High Desert Corridor: Investment Grade Ridership & Revenue Forecasts projects similar success. And the X Train is sure to be a winner, if you believe the public relations over the last eight years.
Why are investors leery of pouring their money into these long-term projects? As shown when the California High-Speed Rail Authority has sought private funding (as required by voter-approved Proposition 1A), potential investors want assurances from the government to reduce their risk before getting involved.
Just like California High-Speed Rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the profitability of a passenger train between Southern California and Las Vegas will depend on travelers evaluating transportation options and choosing the train from among them. Ridership projections – even if they are “scientific” – have limited value because of unknown objective criteria (for example, the future cost of driving or flying) and unmeasurable subjective criteria (for example, the willingness of people to travel captive with an inebriated crowd for five hours).
The end of Amtrak passenger service in 1997 and subsequent failures to initiate three modes of intercity mass transit are warnings that trying to connect Southern California and Las Vegas may end up as another government-driven scheme to enrich special interests at the expense of everyone else. Voters need to be wary when the politicians, corporations, and unions ask them for money to make this powerful vision come true.
Kevin Dayton, a frequent contributor to CPC’s Prosperity Digest, is the President & CEO of Labor Issues Solutions, LLC, and is the author of frequent postings about generally unreported California state and local policy issues at www.laborissuessolutions.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaytonPubPolicy.