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High-speed train plan may move forward

(The following article by Dan Weikel was posted on the Los Angeles Times website on May 9.)

LOS ANGELES -- A partnership of government and industry in southern Nevada plans to spend $1.3 billion to build the nation's first super-fast train.

Where do they want to put it after more than two decades of effort? From Las Vegas to Primm, a three-hotel sideshow on the Nevada-California border. It's best known for an outlet mall, the giant Desperado roller coaster and a bullet-riddled 1934 Ford that carried the infamous Bonnie and Clyde to their deaths.

Critics say the proposal is a train to nowhere. Supporters see a low-cost right of way through the desert that will lead to a revolution in ground transportation: the first commercially successful "maglev" magnetic levitation passenger service.

The vision belongs to a Nevada state commission that has tenaciously clung to the idea of building a 270-mile high-tech system from Las Vegas to Anaheim.

After almost 25 years of study and frustration, the project is now competing with Maryland and Pennsylvania for $950 million in federal funds earmarked for maglev development.

The technology uses magnetic force to propel trains on a cushion of air down a guideway at speeds of more than 300 mph. Power comes from an electrical charge in the guideway that attracts magnets in the train, pulling it forward. Only one, in China, is in commercial operation.

"This is going to be an E-ticket ride," said Bruce Aguilera, chairman of the California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commission. "It is the modern equivalent of the iron horse."

Just four years ago, the Nevada proposal wasn't even in the running for federal money. The only finalists were a 39-mile line between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and a 54-mile system between the Pittsburgh suburbs and the airport. Their estimated costs: about $5 billion and $4 billion, respectively.

But with the help of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the powerful chairman of the House transportation committee, Nevada might get its dream shot, perhaps as early as this month. The maglev is part of the massive transportation bill that has passed the House and is now pending in the Senate. Congress will decide which of the three maglev projects will be funded, and more than one may get the go-ahead.

The Las Vegas-to-Primm train would be part tourist attraction, part transit operation. If it is built, proponents in the Silver State hope it will encourage California to extend the line from Primm to Anaheim by 2015.

Trains would stop in Barstow, Victorville and Ontario before arriving in Anaheim, which is planning a regional transportation center to accommodate trains and transit buses.

The cost of the entire line has been estimated at more than $12 billion. Financing is expected to come from government funds, profits from fares and bond sales. Such a system, supporters say, would benefit tourism in Nevada and California, provide a competitive alternative to regional airlines and allow travelers quick access to Ontario International Airport.

Backers also predict that the new train would ease traffic on Interstate 15, a heavily traveled corridor from San Diego that leads to Las Vegas via the Inland Empire. No longer would motorists from Southern California have to drive four hours or more to reach Las Vegas or spend almost as much time flying from commercial airports with their heightened security, they say.

Maglev is expected to make the trip to Anaheim in 87 1/2 minutes. It would take just 12 minutes for the 40-mile hop to Primm, where a park-and-ride facility for motorists is planned.

The project would be built under a franchise granted to a consortium of companies, including General Atomics, Parsons Transportation Group, Hirschfeld Steel Co. and Transrapid International-USA Inc.

Transrapid, which is owned by Siemens AG and ThyssenKrupp AG in Germany, has designed the technology. The firm helped build China's maglev system between Shanghai and the city's airport 19 miles away. It attracts roughly 8,000 riders a day.

The consortium predicts that 13 million people will ride the Las Vegas-to-Primm line the first year of operation, providing a $50-million annual profit. The complete system is projected to attract 39 million riders in 2015, generating more than $500 million in profit.

Proponents hope to tap the enormous popularity of Las Vegas, which now attracts about 38 million visitors a year 27% of them from Southern California.

Though maglev is the railroad equivalent of the supersonic Concorde, there is nothing fast about the effort to build the Nevada line, let alone the entire system.

Stalled by political setbacks and a chronic shortage of capital, not one foot of maglev guideway has been constructed after almost 25 years of study.

It was originally predicted that the system, which at one time included California and Nevada, would have been finished eight years ago. But the initial builder, giant Bechtel Corp., abandoned the project in 1991 because of a lack of capital.

California dropped out soon after, leaving virtually everything up to the Nevada commission, which has managed to secure support from government officials as well as small federal grants to keep the project alive.

Critics, however, aren't so sure the Vegas-to-Anaheim train matches the commission's bold comparisons to the first transcontinental railroad that helped build the nation.

Though maintenance costs are low, maglev is very expensive to build, they say, and there are more important transportation priorities in California than getting tourists to Disneyland or the craps tables a few hours sooner.

Skeptics further contend that the train will do little, if anything, to relieve the heavy rush-hour traffic on Interstate 15 during the workweek when it is crammed with trucks and commuters, not Vegas-bound tourists.

"There's not much possibility of this being a useful part of the transportation system," said Tom Rubin, a transportation consultant and former rail official in Los Angeles County. "Why do we want to throw scarce transportation dollars at a pie-in-the-sky kind of thing? Look at what's happened to the Las Vegas monorail."

After glowing predictions, the privately financed monorail has been troubled with mechanical problems and lower-than-predicted growth in ridership. In March, a major Wall Street ratings agency downgraded $455 million in monorail bonds to junk status. A second ratings agency has issued warnings about its performance.

Monorail operators blame the setbacks on mechanical flaws that forced the system to shut down for 113 days last year. The system runs for about four miles from the convention center to hotels and casinos.

Critics say the maglev project could be plagued by the same unreliable cost and ridership projections a common problem with rail projects.

There are other questions about whether the system will be profitable. A commercial passenger train has not operated in the black in decades. Even the most successful commuter rail lines receive significant government subsidies.

"The California-Nevada project predicts profitability. That will take a lot of doing," said Paul Taylor, a planning director at the Orange County Transportation Authority, which has backed the maglev system.

"There really has to be a market for this super-premium service."

Taylor, who has worked on the maglev proposal, said discount airlines are not averse to fare wars a tactic that could "devastate" the demand for high-speed trains.

A one-way maglev ticket from Anaheim to Las Vegas will cost about $60, project officials estimate. Today, a round-trip plane ticket from Los Angeles to Las Vegas can cost less, in some cases far less, than $100.

Even if the market is there, the political and financial climate might not be favorable at this time for a massive investment in maglev technology.

California's support for high-speed trains has been wavering under the state budget shortfall. Last year, the state postponed a bond measure that would have paid for the first leg of a $37-billion high-speed rail system from San Francisco to San Diego. A statewide vote on the conventional system could be delayed until 2008.

On the federal level, the Bush administration does not consider maglev trains a priority and has been trying to restrain spending contained in the massive transportation bill pending in Congress.

The House passed a $284-billion version of the measure in late March after much delay. The Senate is now considering the bill. Bush has threatened a veto if spending goes too high.

Competition for a federal appropriation is expected to be intense, and there are no guarantees that any of the proposed maglev projects will receive the $950 million needed for construction.

Nevertheless, Nevada officials are counting on Young and Reid to get their project adequate consideration. There is even talk that Young would like to fund projects on both coasts.

Young "has been our white knight, and Reid has been instrumental from day one," said Aguilera, of the Super Speed Train Commission. "As we move into the authorization bill, this is where Young will weigh in with his support. This will be largely up to Congress."

Monday, May 9, 2005

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