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It’s not as fast, but this Las Vegas train could hit the rails sooner

(The following story by Richard N. Velotta appeared on the Las Vegas Sun website on April 14, 2010.)

LAS VEGAS — As two companies compete to be the first to provide high-speed rail service between Las Vegas and Southern California in the not too distant future, a third is saying it will have a train click-clacking along next year. Las Vegas Railway Express will provide conventional passenger rail service to and from Los Angeles on existing tracks, its executives say.

They’ve been studying the prospect since early 2009 and are now in the strategic planning stage for an inaugural run by mid-2011, more than three years ahead of when the planned DesertXpress high-speed rail system would make its first trip between Victorville, Calif., and Las Vegas.

Michael Barron, chairman and CEO of the company, which is calling its project the “X Train,” envisions having a party atmosphere on wheels when the train takes passengers from Los Angeles’ Union Station to an as-yet-undetermined station location in Las Vegas in about 5 1/2 hours.

“It’s here now, existing technology that won’t take billions of dollars or even hundreds of millions of dollars to develop,” Barron says. “We’re acquiring standard train sets and bi-level commuter passenger cars, and then we’re getting some special cars that we’ll trick up to become a gaming car or a sports and entertainment car.”

While the rival DesertXpress operators have emphasized that they want their customers to begin the Las Vegas experience when they climb aboard their 150 mph train by offering luggage check-in straight to the hotel, the developers of the X Train say the Las Vegas party will start as the train rolls out of the station, with a sports bar lounge in one of the cars and rooms and show tickets available for purchase onboard.
Barron says his company is looking at some scheduling models.

The idea is to initially run one round-trip a day, five days a week, Thursday through Monday.

One proposal is to leave Union Station in Los Angeles about 11:30 a.m., stop to pick up passengers in Fullerton at noon and continue nonstop to Las Vegas, where the train would arrive about 5 p.m.

The return trip would leave Las Vegas about 7 p.m., getting back to Los Angeles about midnight.

Within five years of the startup, executives hope to run 40 trains a week. The price of a round-trip ticket, Barron says, would be $99 — comparable to the average ticket price contemplated by the developers of DesertXpress.

So how would the X Train compete against something as swift as the DesertXpress or a maglev train? Barron’s simple answer: It won’t.

“We’re not going to compete against them,” he says. “This is an excursion type deal. DesertXpress will be very, very costly to build with a brand-new right of way. We plan to make the trip on the existing track between L.A. and Las Vegas, and our experience will be considerably different from theirs.”

A partnership between Amtrak West and Talgo Inc., a Washington state-based subsidiary of Patentes Talgo of Madrid, floated an idea similar to the X Train concept in the late 1990s. Talgo and Amtrak West proposed a European-style train capable of traveling 80 mph on the existing Union Pacific track between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Amtrak was looking for something new to replace the Desert Wind, the one-time daily passenger train service between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City that was trimmed to three trips a week before being shut down May 10, 1997.

There were numerous complaints about the Desert Wind, which was slowed by freight traffic on the Union Pacific-controlled rail line. At times, the 5 1/2-hour trip took eight hours because of freight priority delays.

Talgo ran a successful tourism-based train in the Pacific Northwest between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia.

The company developed a Las Vegas-themed train car, and Amtrak West approached casino companies about subsidizing the service in the early going.

The Amtrak-Talgo partnership proposed building several miles of parallel track along a steep grade in California to help offset the freight train delays. It was a costly proposition that included the expense of developing an environmental assessment on the land where the parallel track was planned.

Amtrak showed off the train during the Governor’s Tourism Conference in Las Vegas in 1999. Sen. Harry Reid, then a member of the Senate Transportation Appropriations subcommittee, helped get $5 million for the route.

But Amtrak couldn’t get the funding necessary to develop the route, and the project was shelved, leaving Las Vegas with a track but no passenger train service.

A key difference between the Amtrak-Talgo model and X Train plan, Barron says, is that the company has negotiated to pay extra for rail access that would give the passenger train priority on the track.

“The plan we have offered has been well received, and we would pay a premium to run ahead of all their (Union Pacific) freight,” he says.

Because it’s a work in progress, Barron says there are several details about the plan that he couldn’t elaborate on. One key detail is the location of the Las Vegas station.

Barron said the company is investigating several sites, and he hopes an announcement on the location would be made within a month.

Would its location influence what happens with the DesertXpress, which also doesn’t have a Las Vegas station location finalized? Four alternative sites are listed in DesertXpress’s environmental assessment, all off Interstate 15, with two near Flamingo Road, one near Russell Road and one near downtown.

But even after the X Train announces its station site, a lot of unanswered questions will remain.

Can the X Train generate enough riders who don’t care that the trip would take longer for them than to drive in their own cars? Will the X Train owners be able to maintain their priority relationship with Union Pacific?

And how does the American Magline Group’s maglev project fit in the equation? The existing Union Pacific line could be along the right of way sought by the maglev project between Las Vegas and Primm. Is there room for both?

What would happen to the X Train once high-speed rail comes on line? Would riders migrate to the faster alternative or would DesertXpress’ Victorville terminus keep the X Train in the game?

None of that will be sorted out until later down the line.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

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