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Opinion: High-speed trains: Going nowhere fast?

(The following article by Larry Rand appeared on the Desert Dispatch website on September 28.)

VICTORVILLE, Calif. -- There are three major sources of energy in the Victor Valley -- the High Desert Power Project, Southern California Edison and Buck Johns.

The 61-year-old Newport Beach entrepreneur is focusing some of that energy on a high-speed alternative to a maglev train that would be cheap to build and almost as fast to use.

"It's a train powered by a big jet engine," Johns said. "The new high-speed Acela Amtrak train uses overhead wires, but the next generation of engines will be jet powered, to eliminate dependence on overhead electrical lines."

Diesel locomotives actually run on electricity generated by the diesel-powered engines. The jet train would substitute a lightweight jet engine for the heavy diesel.

According to Johns, the money for the jet train would come from the private sector, most of it from the Las Vegas convention authority that is building the monorail for Las Vegas.

"There are no major public transportation systems that weren't funded by the federal government in some way," Johns said, "but the monorail in Vegas is the first time we?re seeing a system that is going to be paid for by fare box and advertising.

"The Bombardier group with which we're affiliated feels that it can expand on that to develop a park-and-ride to the center of the Las Vegas market, which is Southern California. It's very expensive to take something over the Cajon Pass, so how close can we get? Why not do it at Victorville, where they have a pro-growth and pro-business environment?

"The economics favor the jet train," Johns said. "Laying conventional railroad track is fast and cheap. We?ve been laying track for 200 years. The jet train has a huge advantage -- it's in and operating, and it's just an expansion of what?s been running since 1959. The propulsion system is a jet engine, and they've been around since the '40s."

Bombardier, the Montreal-based conglomerate which built the Acela for Amtrak, already has built a jet locomotive that was certified by the Federal Railroad Administration in October, 2002. The feds had given Bombardier $25 million to develop the locomotive.

"We believe JetTrain high-speed rail is the technology for America because it's faster, better, and sooner," said Lecia Stewart, Bombardier's vice president for high-speed rail for North America.

Johns wasn?t sure of the total cost of his jet train from Victorville to Las Vegas, but it?s far closer to the $25 million used to develop the jet locomotive than it is to the $15 billion figure floated for a comparable maglev line -- and almost all of it would be privately funded.

The jet train would travel at 150 mph on a dedicated track banked to its specifications, not on existing freight lines as Amtrak is forced to. But compared to maglev track, the jet train line would spring up overnight.

"Studies are under way right now, but it's a multi-year project," said Johns. "We need to get the Las Vegas monorail up and running first. That?s a year. If that goes as it should, then we should be ready to sell bonds for this in a year. Then there are technical and environmental problems, that kind of stuff, so now we're January 2006 to get a permit. But then, it will only take a year to build.

"That's one thing we Americans are masters of: construction. We know how to build stuff."

Monday, September 29, 2003

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