Interstate High Speed Rail Las Vegas-LA
Los Angeles to Las Vegas High Speed Rail service has been a vision for decades. But it needed modern conditions to unfold before materializing. Journeys between that city-pair have grown to a 5 hour drive and 3 1/2 air travel time. Los Angeles metro area, whose population approaches 20 million, is the largest place of origin for visitors to Las Vegas. Recognizing opportunity with proven train technology, venture capitalists are backing a passenger train company to build it. But like many Las Vegas stories, the project has unexpected twists and turns. — Thomas Dorsey, Soul Of America
Las Vegas-Los Angeles High Speed Rail (HSR) began with a commercial real estate developer and casino-owners. Like many before them, they wanted to introduce high speed trains between Las Vegas and Los Angeles to increase patronage. They formed XpressWest and made the first big commitment towards that HSR vision, albeit from a Las Vegas starting point. They raised a $1.5 billion of private funds in 2009. That was far short of the $7 billion needed for Phase 1 between Las Vegas and Victorville in Southern California, but they kickstarted preliminary designs and solicited public input for the required to achieve Environmental Clearances in Nevada and California.
California HSR project had its public bond passed by voters in 2008 and rail authority formed in 2009. A California HSR segment is required in Palmdale-Burbank Airport-LA Union Station corridor in order to create San Francisco-Los Angeles service.
XpressWest planned to build Phase 1 from Las Vegas to Victorville in Southern California, just off I-15 Freeway. Most drivers from Southern California took that freeway in route to Las Vegas. Seeing high speed trains running between Las Vegas and Victorville would be great advertisement. As ridership grows, XpressWest wants to extend from Victorville to Palmdale, then piggy-back on Palmdale-Burbank Airport-LA Union Station corridor segment by leasing track access from California HSR Authority and LA Union Station access from LA Metro.
XpressWest advanced its Los Angeles-Las Vegas High Speed Rail project through the critical Environmental Clearance process, but things stalled. In early 2018, things got back on track when the backers of Brightline Florida passenger rail company bought the controlling interest in XpressWest.
Brightline backers searched for a partner with train operator experience, good travel branding and financial muscle. They convinced Richard Branson to become the company face and they would adopt his global brand name, Virgin. That seemed reasonable, given Branson’s ownership of Virgin Trains UK, Virgin Voyages cruise line, Virgin Airlines and Virgin Resorts in Las Vegas. The project was planned to be rebranded “Virgin Trains Las Vegas.”
Before 2018 ended however, the controlling partners of Brightline soured on Richard Branson’s underwhelming commitment to Virgin Trains Las Vegas project. They parted ways with Branson and renamed the HSR project “Brightline West.”
Brightline West Emerges for Las Vegas-Southern California HSR
In 2019, Brightline West figured out ways to reduce the project down to $4.9 billion in Phase 1 by using mostly I-15 Freeway median and eliminating the intermediate station in Barstow. They found less expensive property in Las Vegas. Clark County Nevada Planning Commission approved 111 acres for the new Brightline West Station at well south of the Strip, across from Las Vegas South Premium Outlets. Brightline West also closed escrow on 284 acres in Victorville.
In its privately financed HSR project, Brightline West received approval to issue $3.2 billion in California tax-exempt bonds. Nevada gave approval to issue $800 million in tax exempt bonds. The U.S. Department of Transportation is providing a $150 million loan. Brightline backers finance the rest.
To make a higher Return-On-Investment, Brightline West will build mixed-use developments on their Las Vegas and Victorville station property. Casinos will most likely be included. In that manner, Brightline West will be similar to Brightline Florida that draws revenue from mixed-use development on its Miami Station or eventually, sells that real estate development.
Initial target market for Brightline West is San Bernardino County and Riverside County residents who will drive 15-45 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 the Raiders Allegiant Stadium opened in 2020, 1 mile north of Brightline West Las Vegas Station. On game days, Raider fans will purchase combination train & shuttle tickets from Las Vegas Station to the stadium.
In the short term, Brightline West is considering use of existing freight rail track from Victorville through Cajon Pass to Rancho Cucamonga, a city 41 miles from Downtown Los Angeles. In Rancho Cucamonga, Brightline West trains would access existing Metrolink commuter rail track heading to LA Union Station in Downtown Los Angeles. That Victorville-Rancho Cucamonga-LA Union Station path would likely run only 60-80 mph. The value proposition would appeal to a smaller percentage of patrons who don’t mind a 4 to 4 1/2 hour, 1-seat ride between LA Union Station and Las Vegas.
More importantly, Brightline West has for Las Vegas-Victorville segment sparked more interest by Metrolink, California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA), City of Palmdale, California HSR Authority, and LA Metro, who manages Los Angeles Union Station.
California HSR & Las Vegas-Southern California HSR Need Each Other
CalSTA, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties have environmentally cleared Brightline West HSR to use its straight High Desert State Highway & Railway corridor between Victorville and Palmdale. If Brightline West raises additional funds to build it, HSR viaduct would run in the highway median.
CalSTA and California HSR Authority also like Brightline West because it compliments their goal for electric high speed rail mileage throughout the state by 2040-50. Opening HSR from Las Vegas to Palmdale sooner will also increase public demand to build California HSR’s Palmdale-Burbank Airport-Los Angeles Union Station segment. In that regard, Brightline West can help California attract more federal and private funds to California HSR mega-project.
Metrolink commuter rail also wants to extend its service from Palmdale to Victorville. Metrolink Palmdale Station already has capacity to share with Brightline West. Metrolink must also be a partner in any application for federal, state and county funding to build the 53-mile High Desert State Highway & Rail corridor between Victorville and Palmdale.
Planning is underway to replace Metrolink Palmdale Station with a larger California HSR Palmdale Transportation Center nearby. Thousands more daily riders from Santa Clarita and north San Fernando Valley would ride Metrolink or drive 20-45 miles on the freeway to Palmdale, then transfer to Brightline West for a 233-mile ride to Las Vegas. They would do so because their 30-60 minute drive to Palmdale combined with a 2-hour train ride to Las Vegas is still shorter and more relaxing than air travel or a complete drive to Las Vegas.
At present, neither California HSR Bakersfield-Palmdale segment, nor California HSR Palmdale-Burbank segment is funded yet. Even if the Palmdale-Burbank segment gets funding in the 2021 U.S. Infrastructure Bill, its unlikely to open before 2030.
Provided Brightline West construction starts in 1Q 2022, a 2026 commercial operation date seems possible. Brightline West trains would rip through the desert on smooth track at speeds ranging from 160-200 mph. That’s fast enough to attract many riders that want to imbibe on a party train to Las Vegas — especially Raider football fans.
For more insights on the challenges and progress of California HSR and its relationship to Brightline West, visit the links below.