DesertXpress inks deal to add train link from Victorville to Palmdale, making travel to L.A. possible

Andrew Mack, chief operating officer of DesertXpress Enterprises, points out California high-speed rail routes during a news conference for the DesertXpress high-speed rail project March 25, 2010. A line from Victorville to Palmdale could tie DesertXpress to the California high-speed rail line.

Click to enlarge photo

A rendering shows a DesertXpress train, which is expected to reach a top speed of about 150 miles per hour and travel between Victorville, Calif., and Las Vegas.

A seamless high-speed rail system linking Las Vegas with downtown Los Angeles is the goal adopted today by representatives of DesertXpress and the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority.

DesertXpress Enterprises already is trying to build a high-speed rail line between Las Vegas and Victorville, Calif. A new agreement signed today makes possible a second leg, linking Victorville to Palmdale, Calif., and eventually Los Angeles.

DesertXpress and MTA representatives signed documents that open the door to the Las Vegas-Los Angeles route. The agreement includes a strategy to plan and build a 50-mile high-speed line between Victorville and Palmdale, which would initially connect to Metrolink tracks and eventually be the connection point to California’s planned high-speed rail system.

The DesertXpress plan is part of a larger strategy envisioned by the Las Vegas-centered Western High Speed Rail Alliance to eventually tie into a regional high-speed rail network with routes to Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Denver.

Letters were signed by Tony Marnell II, founder, chairman and CEO of the Marnell Companies LLC, a partner in the DesertXpress project, and Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, the incoming chairman of the MTA board.

“We really need to move forward on this,” Antonovich said. “I’m frustrated that the United States spends billions of dollars in foreign aid that ends up in the pockets of third-world dictators. This project is a loan, so the money is being paid back and it keeps it in the United States and benefits American citizens.”

While developers have several hurdles to clear and hundreds of details to outline, the plan has been hailed as a potential game-changer for transportation between Southern California and Southern Nevada because it addresses the biggest flaw in DesertXpress’ original plan -– the use of Victorville as a southern end point to the route.

Critics have blasted DesertXpress as a multibillion-dollar boondoggle. Many doubted the company's premise that people would drive 100 miles or more to Victorville and park their cars to take a 150-mph, 1½-hour train ride to Las Vegas.

DesertXpress officials argued that the Las Vegas tourism experience would begin upon boarding the train in California, and passengers would be able to confirm hotel reservations and make dinner and show plans en route.

Antonovich, who plans to go to Washington to brief Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about the plan next week, said working with DesertXpress makes sense because the company and MTA have a mutual need to move passengers between Victorville and Palmdale. Thousands of L.A. commuters live in Victorville and its surrounding communities and would benefit from a rail connection to the city.

Work began in 2010 on getting environmental clearances for a 500-foot right of way between Victorville and Palmdale for the so-called High Desert Corridor, a freeway that would provide an alternate route from the West Coast to inland ports. Antonovich said the rail line would be placed within that right of way.

Several communities have endorsed the link through the High Desert Corridor Joint Powers Authority. The counties of Los Angeles and San Bernardino, the cities of Victorville, Palmdale, Lancaster and Adelanto and the town of Apple Valley back the plan.

Antonovich said the connection would support a system that would extend the MTA’s Metrolink operation from Victorville to San Diego.

The Federal Railroad Administration, which is considering a loan for the project through its Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program, is expected to view the strategic change favorably. DesertXpress submitted the loan request more than a year ago.

Earlier this week, FRA administrator Joseph Szabo said while addressing a press conference at the American Public Transportation Association rail conference in Dallas that he could not comment or give updates on DesertXpress's pending loan application.

The 185-mile, double-tracked Las Vegas-Victorville section of the line, the company's engines and passenger cars and train stations would cost an estimated $6.9 billion.

The FRA loan program, dedicated to funding the development of new railroads or intermodal facilities, the acquisition, improvement or rehabilitation of rail equipment or facilities and the refinancing of debt for rail projects, has the capacity to loan up to $35 billion to projects. About $33 billion of that money is available now.

The DesertXpress loan would be the largest in the program’s history. It would have an interest rate equivalent to the yield of U.S. Treasury securities and a 35-year term.

Developers would put up $1.4 billion in private capital, and government funds would not be used to operate the project.

There’s no estimate yet on the cost of the Victorville-Palmdale link or the improvements necessary on the Metrolink line south of Palmdale.

Andrew Mack, chief operating officer of DesertXpress, said it’s difficult to pinpoint cost and timetable details because officials have just begun talking about them. However, early projections are that the Victorville-Palmdale link would cost around $1.5 billion and that the environmental work would take at least until the end of 2013 to complete.

Work could continue on the Victorville-Palmdale link simultaneously with construction on the Las Vegas-Victorville section.

The Metrolink lines south of Palmdale would need to be electrified with double and triple tracks. Rail experts say the existing lines are capable of accommodating trains that travel up to 50 mph, but the goal would be to have trains that could reach 150 mph.

Antonovich, a Republican, has been one of the leading advocates for rail in Southern California at a time when many Californians are getting cold feet about the $68 billion rail system that has been approved in their state. As vice chairman, he aired the high-speed rail measures with the MTA board. In July, when he takes over as chairman, he’ll bring the proposed partnership with DesertXpress to the board.

A USC Dornsife-Los Angeles Times survey published last week found that 55 percent of the California’s voters want the bond issue for the system that was approved in 2008 back on the ballot, and 59 percent would vote against it.

DesertXpress officials hope to change perceptions by re-emphasizing the safety, environmental and employment benefits of train travel. The company has hired R&R Partners, the Las Vegas-based advertising and public relations firm used by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, to update the train system’s messaging.

R&R Partners has begun hyping the fact that the train would use exclusive double track that it wouldn't share with freight carriers and the line would include no grade crossings, reducing the possibility of collisions.

Officials anticipate the train would divert 2 million car trips from congested Interstate 15 a year, reducing traffic by an estimated 25 percent. The all-electric operation of the train is expected to reduce emissions by 40 percent along the I-15 corridor and save the equivalent of 8.5 million gallons of gasoline.

Construction of the train line is expected to generate 80,000 primary and secondary jobs. Most of the jobs would be in California because that's where most of the track would be located.

And while many experts have said one of the biggest challenges in building passenger train ridership would be to pry Californians out of their cars, the American Public Transportation Association said earlier this week that higher gasoline prices have driven auto use down and train travel up.

Szabo said there are 44 rail projects in 16 states that are under way or set to break ground. He added that Generation X and Generation Y consumers consider it a “badge of honor” not to own a car and to rely on mass transit or bicycle sharing programs.

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  1. Waste of public money. How much did these guys "bundle" for Harry!?? No one is going to ride this white elephant!

  2. If and only IF this goes to L.A. it could be a good thing.

    The problem I see is getting enough people in California to get out of their cars and use it to make it pays it own way.

    I have a bad feeling that IF this is ever built it is going to end up being subsidized by the taxpayers.

    Would be nice to see REAL FIGURES for building it then what it is going to cost to run. That will give you an idea what it will cost people to ride and if they can attract enough riders to pay the bills.

    Most of the time they claim many more riders then what show up when the thing is built.

  3. I have a serious question. I recently drove from LA to Vegas at 11.00 PM. There was heavy traffic on a Monday night all the way. 90 % of the traffic was trucks carrying cargo. Why are they not adding cargo carriages to the train? This would be an excellent source of reliable revenue!!!! PLease comment

  4. Thanks for reading, everybody. Before everybody gets too far "off track," allow me to clarify a few things.

    1) We're not talking about taxpayer money here ... it's a loan -- a loan that developers would be required to pay back with interest. I get that many cynics automatically assume that the project is going to fail and would be taken over by the government.

    2) What these letters state is that DesertXpress and the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority -- not the California High Speed Rail Authority -- will talk about working together. Whether the high-speed rail plan flies or not isn't a part of the discussion.

    3) The end game is running a train from downtown L.A. to Las Vegas. As much as all of us would like to have all the answers now, it's too early for these entities to know if a train would stop in Victorville or Palmdale. Ideally, it would run nonstop from one end to the other. I'm sure how much a fare would be is going to be part of the discussion. But MTA is looking at the prospect of serving commuters from Victorville to L.A. as well.

    Hope this helps. Carry on with the conversation.

  5. 1). It is tax dollars even if it is a loan. The prospect is so risky the private sector either would not make the loan or would charge a high interest rate. The prospect is risky because Desert Xpress is likely to not even make enough to cover operating expenses and thus won't likely repay the loan which means Nevada tax payers must foot the bill.

    2). R&R figures and DX figures are bunk. It is highly unlikely it will reduce traffic 25 percent. Europeans can even reach half that amount with significantly more rail subsidies and much higher taxes on auto transport

  6. I find it funny you think money taken from tax payers is not tax payer money....

  7. "There you go again," said Ron Reagan and today, it's more of the same. Any private enterprise worth doing needs no "loans" or other help from taxpayers. Either it's a good and viable idea, or it is not. This one is not, I believe. It's the LV Monorail on steroids and has just as much possibility of success. I'm for free enterprise and by that I mean one free from unnecessary red tape & hindrance from government bureaucrats and free from any government monetary assistance. So, ixnay on any tax oneymay going to this ojectpray.

  8. If the environmental studies are not to be completed 'til 2013, the subsequent public comment, findings and decree portions of any study performed under the National Environmental Policy Act will take an additional two years to finalize. The Environment Impact Assessment I participated in for the third runway at SeaTac International Airport took 8 years from start of EIS until we broke ground for construction, but we also had wetlands and salmon/trout spawning streams that the impact had to be mitigated on, so my guess would be 5 years before the ground breaking. I wonder which Prez is going to be able to proclaim THEY built the rail

  9. All of you who are discrediting this idea before it comes to fruition are the reason why this country is so behind the times in so many areas. Have you seen the price of a gallon of gas? The price of an airline ticket? Don't expect those to go down anytime soon! A roundtrip to Phoenix used to cost me $40 in gas ($20/tank there, $20/tank back), but now costs me $100. I welcome a new alternative transportation method for visiting L.A. If the company delivers on its promise and builds service from L.A. to Las Vegas then why wouldn't we welcome this? Look past your car-dependency that Vegas has made you grow accustom to and realize that in other cities, people are used to taking trains and other forms of mass transit. New York, L.A., San Francisco, etc. all are mass transit towns where many people don't have cars. Taking a trip to Las Vegas will be second nature to these people and they would probably pick the train as their option instead of driving or taking a flight. This is not the monorail on steroids, this is something different, something good, and something we should support as Nevadans and Las Vegans.

  10. Joe do you plan on paying the bills when it turns out I'm right and the rail is a flop?