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Las Vegas updates score card with a new rail player

(The following story by Richard N. Velotta appeared on the Las Vegas Sun website on June 3, 2010.)

LAS VEGAS — It’s time for readers to pull out their Los Angeles train score cards for the latest update on the Great Race to provide some kind of rail service to and from Southern California.

There’s a new player on the field with an interesting route proposal, but it’s late to the party for financing.

Genesis High Speed Rail America LLC wants to build the Desert Lightning, a high-speed train that would use existing steel-wheel-on-rails technology with 200 mph electric locomotion.

That technology puts it in the same category with what has to be considered the front-runner in the race, DesertXpress, which was last reported ready to break ground on its Las Vegas-to-Victorville, Calif., train track sometime this year.

Like DesertXpress, the Desert Lightning plan would use a dedicated line. But Desert Lightning veers in a different direction with a route proposal that makes sense for the long haul.

Duane Wilder, chairman of Genesis, proposes a T-shaped route going south from Las Vegas, parallel to the Colorado River and U.S. 95, just east of Mojave National Preserve. Somewhere near Interstate 10, the line would intersect with an east-west line running parallel to the freeway between Los Angeles and Phoenix.

In theory, what that means is that Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas would be connected by high-speed rail, putting the three cities within an hour and a half of each other — a great benefit to Las Vegans and tourists who want to come to Las Vegas. The route could capture the Palm Springs, Calif., market, which includes some wealthy retirees who fit nicely in the gaming industry’s demographic sweet spot.

Where the plan falls flat is that Wilder and his impressive list of consultants and partners want federal money to study the proposal. He said about $35 million would cover the study’s cost.

Wilder said he expects the train would be built as a public-private partnership. He said the study would conclude whether it would be best to use proven European technology or proven Japanese technology.

“I’ve ridden on both of the trains,” Wilder said. “I can’t say which one is better than the other and part of it could depend on the terrain, so the exact route also would be studied.”

He wants to focus on connecting airports as well as cities with cities.

Wilder has concluded that the United States isn’t ready for maglev and he doesn’t think it’s a proven technology, even though it has been successfully running in China for years.

Wilder said once a study is completed, investors get on board what could be a $35 billion to $40 billion project.

Although Wilder says it’s never too late to look at a good project, Genesis and Desert Lightning may be left at the station.

Representatives haven’t spelled out details of their construction financing. And DesertXpress — which some wags are calling “the train to nowhere” — says it has investors ready to build the line and buy the train sets. Although many people won’t be convinced that it’s going to happen until they see the golden spike driven into the ground and trains coming from both directions, it looks like the project is real.

If Desert Lightning succeeds in getting the study money — and it should ask the folks at the American Magline Group, backers of a Las Vegas-Los Angeles maglev proposal, about how easy it is to get a check from the government — it would still take years to get the environmental permits and engineering completed.

The maglev group is still waiting for the proverbial check that’s in the mail that it was promised years ago. Even prodding from Gov. Jim Gibbons and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto last month didn’t produce any results.

Just last week, the U.S. Transportation Department issued a detailed news release outlining where its first round of $80 million in high-speed rail grants would go and there’s nothing earmarked for Nevada or Southern California.

The biggest chunk of the $80 million is going to benefit one of Las Vegas’ biggest tourism rivals, Orlando, Fla. The department is giving $66.6 million for preliminary engineering for a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando.

Another $6.2 million is going to California’s Capitol Corridor, the link between San Francisco and Sacramento. And, $5.7 million has been allocated for environmental assessments for new stations for a route between Milwaukee and Madison, Wis. New York and New Mexico also got grants.

Meanwhile, look further down your train score card for your low-speed train update.

When we last looked into this realm, two companies were offering cruise ships on rails with trains making a 5 1/2-hour trip from downtown L.A. to Las Vegas using Union Pacific Railroad tracks.

Moving passenger trains on that line has been problematic in the past because Union Pacific gives a higher priority to moving freight. Amtrak trains were often delayed when it ran its Desert Wind service from L.A. to Salt Lake City via Las Vegas in the 1980s and 1990s. Amtrak abandoned the route in 1998.

The two new players planning low-speed train excursions are Las Vegas Railway Express and its X Train, which plans to shuttle passengers to Las Vegas in a party atmosphere aboard double-deck passenger cars expected to be pulled at a maximum speed of about 80 mph, and D2 Holdings’ Z-Train, a nearly identical proposal to the X Train that company leaders say was hijacked by their rivals.

Neither side is talking much because they’ve sued each other, but Las Vegas Railway Express executive Michael Barron said he negotiated around the Union Pacific line delays by offering the company more money for placement ahead of freight. That got Union Pacific’s attention, since its executives said they made no such deal.

A letter from Jerry Wilmoth, Union Pacific general manager of network infrastructure, told Barron “there are no pending agreements or negotiations with Union Pacific that could result in any agreement to operate on UP rights of way.”

Wilmoth sent a similar letter to the Z-Train team.

Barron didn’t respond to an e-mail request for comment while Bruce Richardson, a spokesman for the Z-Train project, said, “Unfortunately, because of existing litigation, I can’t comment.”

Wilmoth demanded a public clarification from both the X Train and Z-Train backers and a Union Pacific representative said the company was satisfied that they had complied.

Since neither the X Train or Z-Train teams have issued any statements on the status of their negotiations with Union Pacific, it’s unclear where using its tracks stands.

Your score card should say there are two low-speed excursion trains in a holding pattern and three high-speed proposals in various stages of development, one of them with a superior route structure (Desert Lightning), one with superior technology (maglev) and one with superior financing at the ready (DesertXpress).

And for the time being, potential customers are still waiting for the train to come in.

Friday, June 4, 2010

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