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TRAIN TO NOWHERE? | Will rail service ever make it to southern Nevada?

XpressWest, a private company, had been hoping for a $5.5 billion federal loan for a first leg to Victorville, but the loan was suspended in 2013 when Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said it failed to meet “Buy America” standards. 11/2/16 (Tom Hawley | KSNV | XPressWest)

It's been 19 years since regularly scheduled passenger rail service rolled through Southern Nevada. There have been many announcements about new trains, but so far nothing.

The question is whether any train will ever leave the station, despite having some powerful people working to make rail happen here.

“Of all things we're doing, this is one of the more important things,” says George Smith. “We're kind of capped out on bringing tourists in. “

A retired banking executive, Smith is Chairman of the Nevada High Speed Rail Authority, which has chosen high-speed XpressWest to get the job done. He says there are three pieces to the puzzle.

“The environmental are pretty much there and all regulatory, which is huge. They've spent ten years and about fifty million dollars for this process. The second is, can you build it? And I think with the Marnell companies behind it, they can actually build this train track and get it going. And the third piece is now, of course, coming down to financing.”

The private company had been hoping for a $5.5 billion federal loan for a first leg to Victorville, but the loan was suspended in 2013 when Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said it failed to meet “Buy America” standards.

According to transportation consultant Wendell Cox, the fact that the loan didn’t come through is a good thing.

“For the most part, passenger rail is inherently unprofitable,” said Cox, noting that a government loan would put taxpayers at risk. “Out of the more than 150 projects, high-speed rail projects that have been built in the last 40 years, only three are profitable.”

There's more trouble on the tracks when it comes to routing of that initial leg to Victorville – a relatively small population city.

“400-thousand people isn't enough to do much of anything. It's not that big,” notes Cox. “The LA area on the other hand has 16-million people. People are not going to drive 90 miles in horrific traffic to get to Victorville to get on the train and go to Vegas. By the time you get to Victorville, most times the freeway has opened up and you've got a clear shot to go to Vegas.”

XpressWest points out that an extension to Palmdale would eventually link with California High Speed Rail on into Los Angeles. But that won't happen until 2029 under the most optimistic scenario, so the interim would a two-hour Metrolink commuter train to Union Station.

“You can keep working on XpressWest if you want to, but that's a long time in the future,” notes U.S. Representative Dina Titus. “I wish them success. I've been on that train commission under three governors. I want a speed train. I just don't think it's a reality in the near future. So let's don't just keep waiting around. Let's get some other alternative that we can put up quicker and cheaper.”

Titus wants to go back to the future.

“We've been talking to Amtrak.,” she says. “We've been talking to the [Union Pacific], trying to figure out a way to get them back here and share some track. If you do that, the right of way problems are already resolved. And you just have got to figure out how to make some pullovers so the freight trains can move over for the passenger trains.”

“Amtrak service is highly subsidized. It's just not needed,” counters Cox.

Cox believes neither train solves the problem of I-15 congestion.

“The big increase in traffic in the United States is not cars, it's trucks. Trucks aren't gonna be on this high speed rail system.”

He sees a more traditional solution to freeing up traffic on I-15.

“We're sitting there with 80 feet of right of way the entire distance in the middle, which is enough to add two lanes. You add two lanes, you've got all the capacity you could ever expect to need. Because population growth isn't that much anymore. You can do that for a billion dollars.”

Still, Titus is hoping to gain traction with Amtrak, while the Nevada High Speed Rail Authority roots for XpressWest.

“It's a big dollar amount for a start-up railroad, so that's the challenge,” reasons Smith. “Is it feasible? It could be. It's going be a tough road. But I think they can do it.”

A new XpressWest ridership forecast is anticipated at the end of the year which Smith hopes can be used to drum up investors. The company did not respond to a request for an interview.

Amtrak will have to work its way through congress with no new funding currently in sight. Meanwhile, it's gridlock on I-15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas every weekend.

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