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Competing high-speed train plans battling for support

(The following story by Richard N. Velotta appeared on the Las Vegas In Business website on June 19, 2009.)

LAS VEGAS, Nevada — Competing high-speed train proposals for systems linking Las Vegas and Southern California are getting support from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, but a group planning to develop a magnetic-levitation system was stunned when one of its biggest supporters switched sides.

The authority’s board of directors voted to support development of the DesertXpress, a high-speed train between Victorville, Calif., and Las Vegas. A rival system being developed by the American Magline Group and the California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commission is expected to request similar support.

The DesertXpress would use conventional wheel-on-steel-rail technology and move passengers at 150 mph between Las Vegas and Victorville, the southern terminal. The maglev plan would extend from Las Vegas to Anaheim, Calif., and the technology involves vehicles levitated by charged electromagnets on a guideway. The system envisioned by the backers would travel 300 mph.

Authority executives say they have no preference for what system gets built and would support any credible plan that would bring tourists to Southern Nevada from Southern California.

“It’s up to the developers and the promoters to determine what that system is going to look like,” authority President and CEO Rossi Ralenkotter said recently. “But rail service between here and California will be important to Las Vegas in the future as we expand with more rooms and we need more visitors to fill them. Before the recession, there were proposals to get us up to 170,000 to 175,000 rooms. When you get to that level, it’s 53 (million), 54 (million) 55 (million) people a year (to fill those rooms) so you need all forms of transportation.”

But maglev backers were stunned last week when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has backed their plan for years, announced he is working to help fund the DesertXpress.

Reid thinks the DesertXpress has “made more progress in the last couple of years than maglev has made in the past 30,” spokesman Jon Summers said. “He wants to see something done.”

Reid’s critics say he changed allegiance because he is being supported politically by Sig Rogich, one of the DesertXpress’ backers. In February Rogich led a group of prominent Republicans in support of Reid’s reelection bid in 2010.

The reversal comes at a crucial juncture as maglev developers hoped to secure part of the $8 billion the Obama administration is planning for high-speed rail. With Reid in their corner, DesertXpress officials have said they would seek federally backed loans after earlier saying the project would be privately financed.

Proposals for high-speed trains were aired in the late 1970s as traffic on Interstate 15 increased. Southern California supplies one-third of Las Vegas’ visitors, and about 80,000 vehicles a day now use I-15 after peaking at about 97,000 a day in July 2005.

As more people took to the highway, 10-hour drives between Los Angeles and Las Vegas instead of four became more the norm on busy weekends.

That’s why the LVCVA is interested in any train system involving the city.

The DesertXpress was among three transportation-oriented plans presented to the authority by transportation consultant Tom Skancke of the Skancke Co. The others support the next phase of improvements of the Devore interchange at I-15 and Interstate 215 in San Bernardino County, Calif., and for upgrading U.S. 93 to Interstate 11 between Las Vegas and Phoenix.

The DesertXpress resolution cites the private company’s plan to develop a high-speed train on tracks to be built primarily within the I-15 corridor. The project is in the final stages of an environmental impact statement and could start construction as early as next year with completion in four years.

Maglev developers are working on that project’s environmental impact statement and probably couldn’t start construction until at least 2011.

Maglev backers got LVCVA support in March 1981 and February 1987, but advances in technology have made it more sophisticated in the past 20 years.

Las Vegas became a train stop in 1905 and passenger travel evolved with Amtrak taking the lead on developing the market. Amtrak’s Desert Wind train ran between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City on tracks used primarily by Union Pacific to move freight inland from Southern California.

A Desert Wind trip from Los Angeles’ Union Station to Las Vegas took seven to eight hours and stopped at what is now the Plaza Hotel in downtown Las Vegas.

When airlines were deregulated in 1978, Amtrak had new competition. Several airlines saw the value of the Los Angeles to Las Vegas market and offered fares that not only undercut train ticket prices but got passengers to their destination in less than one-sixth the time the Desert Wind took.

Today, four airlines offer 29 round trips a day between Las Vegas and Los Angeles International Airport. Add flights to airports in Burbank, Long Beach, Orange County and Ontario and the total is 55 round trips a day.

As air traffic took hold, Amtrak reduced its daily service to three trips a week and in May 1997 ended it.

But Amtrak wasn’t giving up. At the prodding of Reid and with a ridership study commissioned by Rogich Communications, an Amtrak subsidiary proposed a faster train for the Los Angeles-Las Vegas run.

Amtrak West partnered with Talgo Inc., a Washington state-based subsidiary of Patentes Talgo SA of Madrid. Talgo and Amtrak West proposed a European-style train capable of traveling 80 mph on the existing Union Pacific track.

Talgo had a successful tourist-based train between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, and was expanding its operation to Portland, Ore. Talgo built themed cars and was ready to deliver a train faster than the Desert Wind and that would take cars off I-15.

In 1998 Amtrak West began negotiating with casino companies to subsidize the train service.

Amtrak showed off the train during the Governor’s Tourism Conference in Las Vegas. Reid, then a member of the Senate Transportation Appropriations subcommittee, helped get $5 million for the route.

“This is good for tourism, good for business and a sound investment in the future of Southern Nevada,” Reid said at the time.

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who was Amtrak’s chairman, said the new route represented a resurgence in rail travel.

“If this doesn’t sound anything like the old Amtrak, it’s not. This is a new Amtrak,” Thompson said at the unveiling.

Friday, June 19, 2009

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