The XpressWest project began with a Las Vegas developer and casino-owners who wanted to introduce High Speed Rail between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. After false starts and lack of passenger rail experience, Brightline train company acquired the unbuilt project in 2018, then itself was acquired by Richard Branson & partners, bringing much needed financial muscle. The rebranded Virgin Trains Las Vegas-Southern California project appears headed towards for a late-2020 groundbreaking.
Interstate High Speed Rail Las Vegas-LA
A Los Angeles Union Station-Las Vegas high speed rail (HSR) service has been a vision for many decades. Since journeys between those endpoints have grown to 5 hours drive travel time and over 3 hours air travel time and California population has nearly doubled since 1980, people in the mega-region demand another alternative.
XpressWest private investors were the first to make a serious commitment towards that vision with a $1.5 billion private fund raise in 2009. That was far short of the $7 billion needed for Phase 1 between Las Vegas and Victorville in Southern California, then Phase 2 to Palmdale and Phase 3 to LA Union Station by piggy-backing on California HSR track. After false starts, the real estate developer and casino owners backing XpressWest searched for an investment partner with train operator experience. They seemed happy in 2018, when Brightline passenger rail company in Florida bought controlling interest in XpressWest. Brightline trimmed $2 billion of project cost and completed federal and state environmental clearances for the project.
Before 2018 ended, Richard Branson & partners bought controlling interest in Brightline. Richard Branson is the public face of a respected travel conglomerate: Virgin Trains UK, Virgin Voyages, Virgin Airlines, Virgin Resorts and Virgin Trains USA, the latter a rebranding from Brightline.
Virgin Trains USA will build its Las Vegas Station well south of the Strip, across from Las Vegas South Premium Outlets for an estimated cost of $4.9 billion. Virgin Trains USA has received approval to issue $3.2 billion in California tax-exempt bonds. Approval for $800 million in Nevada tax exempt bonds and a $150 million U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) loan are pending. In March 2020, Virgin Trains closed escrow on 284 acres in Victorville, CA and Clark County Nevada Planning Commission approved 111 acres for the new Virgin Trains Station.
To make a higher return-on-investment, Virgin Trains management will also build a mixed-use development on their land adjacent to Las Vegas and Victorville stations. In that manner, Virgin Trains will duplicate a key aspect of Brightline/Virgin Trains rail complex in Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach corridor that draws revenue from mixed-use development surrounding its Miami Station.
The initial target market for Virgin Trains Las Vegas-Victorville project is San Bernardino County and Riverside County residents who will drive 15-40 miles up I-15 and I-215 Freeways to Victorville, then transfer for a 90-minute train ride to Sin City. Some NFL fans have already dubbed it “Raiders Train” because the football team has an abundant Southern California fanbase and Raiders Allegiant Stadium opens in Fall 2020 only 3 miles north of Virgin Trains Las Vegas Station.
Virgin Trains USA announced a planned late-2020 groundbreaking for the Las Vegas-SoCal project. Even without tunneling, their 2023 planned opening date seems too optimistic for a 180-mile Phase 1 project; 130 miles in California. A 2024 opening seems more likely for electric-powered trains to rip through the desert at a top speed somewhere between 155-186 mph, like those in Europe.
Virgin Trains USA nearing start of construction for Las Vegas-Victorville segment by 2023-24 sparked interest by the Metrolink, California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA), City of Palmdale, California HSR Authority, and LA Metro, who manages LA Union Station. CalSTA, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties have cleared the project for grade-separated railway mostly in the High Desert State Highway & Railway corridor. Railway would run in the highway median between Victorville and Palmdale. CalSTA and California HSR Authority have particular interest in the Virgin Trains project because it increases their goal for more electric high speed rail mileage that will glue together for greater mobility options that reduce highway & airport congestion, smog and greenhouse gases in the 2030s.
Metrolink also wants to extend a new commuter rail line from Palmdale to Victorville, the latter a growing city in one of five counties that underwrite Metrolink service. Hence, Metrolink must be a partner in any application for federal, state and county grants to help build the 53-mile Victorville-Palmdale High Desert State Highway & Rail corridor.
Metrolink Palmdale Station will later be complimented by a larger California HSR Palmdale Transportation Center nearby. But neither California HSR Bakersfield-Palmdale segment, nor California HSR Palmdale-Burbank segment is funded yet. Both segments seem unlikely to reach Palmdale until the 2030s. Fortunately, Metrolink Palmdale Station has capacity to share with Virgin Trains.
If Victorville-Palmdale High Desert State Highway & Railway Corridor receives those grants, Virgin Trains USA has a vested interest to help upgrade the railway project with over/underpasses and viaduct to eliminate all roadway crossings. In that manner, the route can multiply safety and support more 110-125 mph Metrolink commuter trains and 155-186 mph Virgin Trains in less travel time. Thousands more daily patrons from Santa Clarita and north San Fernando Valley would ride Metrolink or drive 35-40 miles on SR-14 Freeway to Palmdale, then transfer to Virgin Trains for a relaxing 233-mile ride to Las Vegas in 2 hours travel time.
After Virgin Trains locks in all Phase 1 funding and starts construction, it will be interesting to see if Branson & Partners raise more private funds to help Phase 2 Victorville-Palmdale extension complete sooner and better. Stay tuned.
For more insights on the challenges and progress of California HSR and its relationship to Virgin Trains USA, see https://www.soulofamerica.com/blog/california_high_speed_rail/ and Interstate High Speed Rail, Part 1