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Proposed bullet train would link Southern Calif., Las Vegas

VICTORVILLE, Calif. -- Using high-speed train technology unveiled last week, a Canadian firm and a Southern California businessman are looking to create the first viable bullet train service between Victorville and Las Vegas, the Daily Press reported.

Boasting a cheaper project cost and a faster timeline than the long-awaited Maglev train, the so-called JetTrain would whisk passengers at 150 mph between a park-and-ride-like facility at Southern California Logistics Airport and the Nevada gambling mecca, said William Buck Johns, the developer who was behind the High Desert Power Project.

High-speed rail access between Southern California and Las Vegas has long been a goal of regional officials.

The Maglev train, named for its magnetic levitation propulsion technology, would run between Las Vegas and Anaheim, with stops in Victorville and Barstow. It has been on the drawing boards and has been much-debated since the 1980s.

With a price tag of $20 billion -- $5 billion for the first leg between Las Vegas and Barstow -- naysayers complain the Maglev project is too expensive.

Johns said while he still thought Maglev was a "wonderful technology" it was too expensive right now. He said the JetTrain would cost about $1.5 billion, and he hopes it could be in place in three years.

The president of the private company involved in the Maglev project scoffed at the plan.

"I don’t think this is viable," said Neil Cummings, president of American Magline Group.

In the case of the JetTrain, promoters claim operators would enjoy a significant savings over the Maglev. Powered by a 5,000-horsepower Pratt & Whitney jet engine, the JetTrain locomotive weighs 20 percent less than conventional diesel locomotives and has twice the acceleration power, according to Bombardier Transportation Inc.

The Quebec, Canada-based Bombardier is JetTrain’s developer.

The vehicle’s lighter weight would allow the train to run on existing-type track at 150 mph without damaging the train or the rails, according to Bombardier representatives.

Proponents of both technologies agree that the Interstate 15 corridor between Victorville and Las Vegas is ripe for high-speed train service.

"Everybody looks at this corridor for high-speed transportation," said Franscois Badeau, chairman of Transmax Group, which is working with Bombardier to implement the new technology.

Badeau said he still supports Maglev technology, however.

"This is a business decision. The first thing to look at is need. This corridor has a tremendous need. After that is the product to meet the need. Second thing is leadership to make it happen. And is it financially feasible? This corridor can bring these things together," Badeau said.

Promoter Johns agreed.

"For Las Vegas, this is another straw into the glass of Southern California," Johns said.

For Victorville, Johns said he imagines that the service will create hundreds of local jobs at a parking lot at Southern California Logistics Airport. The train would stop in Victorville because bringing the tracks through the Cajon Pass would add too much to the cost.

Victorville Councilman Terry Caldwell, Mayor Mike Rothschild and City Manager Jon Roberts all traveled to Washington, D.C., last week for the unveiling of the JetTrain technology.

"We’re receptive. We’ve always represented pro-growth and projects that can create jobs or revenue for the city," Caldwell said.

Rothschild sits on the 16-member California-Nevada Speedtrain Commission, which is overseeing the Maglev project, and has been one of the biggest boosters of that project in the Victor Valley.

"I still see the Maglev as being the train of the 21st century. High-speed rail is now. The time is now and Maglev is for the future. But ultimately the market will make the decision, not me," Rothschild said.

The Victorville City Council recently approved a $50,000 check for the Maglev project, part of $250,000 raised by city and regional agencies in the Victor Valley.

For now, funding sources haven’t been firmly identified for the JetTrain project, Johns said. He said he hopes the JetTrain would be privately financed through bonding future revenues from advertisements on the train.

"Once you get public money involved, it opens up a whole new set of problems," Johns said.

But Maglev proponents investigated purely private financing in the late 1980s and early 1990s and found it not to be feasible, said Richann Johnson, executive assistant to the commission.

While Johnson said she hadn’t studied the JetTrain technology, she did not believe the 150 mph train would compete with the 300 mph Maglev train.

"I don’t see it as competition. People would have to evaluate travel time and fare price," Johnson said.

But the private partner on the Maglev project said it will likely come down to the choice of just one technology.

"I don’t think it’s realistic or feasible to find the necessary public and private support for both the 150-mph 19th century technology train and a 300-mph 21st century technology train," said Cummings, president of American Magline Group.

Bombardier also touts the environmental benefits of its technology, that it burns less fuel than a diesel engine and would help take cars off the road.

While local environmentalists said they need to examine what right-of-way the train would take, as well as environmental reports for the project, they expressed the need for mass transit.

"We do need to take cars off the road," said Carol Wiley, chair of the Mojave Group of the Sierra Club. "But if it went through special habitat, I’d be concerned."

Thursday, October 24, 2002

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