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Back on Track: The high-speed train from Las Vegas to California is closer than ever to becoming reality

Las Vegas Weekly // Brock Radke

Nevada Congresswoman Dina Titus has been working on a proposed high-speed rail line between Las Vegas and Southern California for some 25 years. That’s long enough for something that once seemed like a futuristic dream project to be mostly forgotten by skeptical local residents.
Nevada Congresswoman Dina Titus has been working on a proposed high-speed rail line between Las Vegas and Southern California for some 25 years. That’s long enough for something that once seemed like a futuristic dream project to be mostly forgotten by skeptical local residents.

But Titus believes this dream project is on the right track at last, thanks to a multi-jurisdictional strategic effort, careful planning by upstart rail service company Brightline, and a $3 billion grant from the federal government’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

“We’ve put together different plans, different companies have been involved, worked on different routes and been involved with different commissions over a long time with this project,” Titus tells the Weekly. “This was the cherry on the sundae, to get that federal commitment of dollars, and it came through the [2021] recovery bills we passed. We’re really excited about it.”

President Joe Biden joined Titus, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, Gov. Joe Lombardo, Senators Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto and other officials on December 8 at the Carpenters International Training Center in Las Vegas to formally announce the grant for Brightline West, the planned 218-mile, all-electric passenger rail service to be built within the median of Interstate 15 between Las Vegas and Rancho Cucamonga, California. Biden called it the “first world-class high-speed rail project in the nation.”

In a statement, Brightline founder and chairman Wes Edens called the grant “a historic moment that will serve as a foundation for a new industry, and a remarkable project that will serve as the blueprint for how we can repeat this model throughout the country.”

He’s planning to raise the rest of the money for the $12 billion project through private investors, start construction early this year and be up and running in time for the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. All-new tracks will be built for trains running at speeds of up to 200 MPH—powered by solar and geothermal energy from California and Nevada operating a catenary system of overhead wires suspended over the tracks—for an expected travel time of 2 hours and 10 minutes to Rancho Cucamonga. Additional stations are planned in Hesperia and Apple Valley, with the flagship Las Vegas station based south of the Strip on Las Vegas Boulevard between Warm Springs and Blue Diamond Roads, where Brightline purchased 110 acres in 2021.

Brightline, which purchased the previous development Xpress West in 2018 and its valuable, previously negotiated right-of-way, operates an express train in Florida between Miami and Orlando, with stops in Aventura, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton and West Palm Beach. It’s not as fast nor is it electric, but it creates greater connectivity between major cities and tourism routes with its three-hour trip from Miami to Orlando. The Vegas-LA train is the next evolution.

Titus says she believes Brightline West’s budget and timeline plans are reasonable. “So much was already in place, from the labor contract agreements to the environmental studies that have been done and the way the financing has been calculated. They want to get it ready in time for the LA Olympics so all those international travelers can come to Las Vegas as part of their Olympic experience.”

A Las Vegas connection to the Olympic Games is a dream that hasn’t really ever been explored, but it’s just one of the possible effects that could come as a result of an efficient high-speed rail line. Those skeptical locals might assume the benefits begin and end with Southern California tourism getting a boost and travelers having an alternative to driving or flying, but the impact of this project on Southern Nevada is much more wide-ranging.

Harry Teng, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and construction at UNLV since 2004 and a commissioner for the Nevada High Speed Rail Authority, says this connection has been explored for decades because it’s absolutely necessary.

“There was Amtrak passenger train service from Las Vegas to Los Angeles up until 1997,” Teng says of the Desert Wind route that began in 1979, part of the California Zephyr line from Chicago to LA. “People living in this area of the country need access to a larger transportation system. This has to be provided. To have these two big clusters of population without having a passenger train connection is something unbelievable.”

Teng says he has used high-speed rail for years in China, routes connecting Beijing to surrounding cities that reduce hours-long commutes to minutes. “People can live in one city and work in another and go back and forth. I can imagine something like that will happen in Las Vegas in the future, and there will be more business moving to Las Vegas from California,” he says. “Fortune 500 companies might choose to move here because we have a better business environment.”

Edens discussed the concept of an LA-Vegas commute beyond tourism with Forbes last year, just as Brightline was opening another Florida station at the Orlando International Airport. And as Biden touted in Las Vegas, Edens noted that this project is only the beginning for high-speed rail in the U.S. “Nine major cities in Japan are connected with true high-speed rail; China has 26,000 miles of high-speed train routes. We have zero,” he said. “Vegas to LA is probably the best system in the world that hasn’t been built yet. … What I’m very focused on is it being viable economically because that means there’ll be more of them.”

The Las Vegas station will certainly be much more than a train station. Teng says the location near the Strip and the airport is perfect to create a transit village and commercial center, the core of a bigger “center of population to be developed.” Edens co-owns the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks and the English Premier League’s Aston Villa soccer club, and there’s already been speculation that a long-elusive professional soccer stadium could be part of the development on the Brightline land. That site is also close to the 66-acre plot where Oak View Group is developing a potential NBA arena and casino resort project.

“Every place you see trains being built, any kind of train, development is part of the calculation that comes around with those stations,” Titus says. “It really will make a difference, especially in the southern end of Las Vegas which is already becoming a real theater for development with [Allegiant] Stadium and the baseball team [Oakland A’s] and those kinds of activities. And that’s part of my district.”

Those major league sports arrivals have reignited discussion and support in recent years for better public transportation around the Las Vegas Valley, so imagine what a high-profile national innovation will bring. “There’s no doubt about the economic impact to Las Vegas and you can clearly see that the transportation landscape in Las Vegas will see that change,” Teng says. “If the density increases, there will be more high-rises to be built. Some already think there will be light rail connecting Downtown Las Vegas to Maryland Parkway and the airport, and with these people moving to Las Vegas … there will be more advanced transportation systems built in Las Vegas.”

That’s the future-future. If Brightline West stays on course and starts sending people back and forth by 2028, the more immediate impacts should include 35,000 construction jobs, a lot less carbon monoxide in the air, fewer short-distance flights, and a lot more people visiting Las Vegas for business and/or fun. Edens told Forbes the train will move about 3 million cars off the road, cutting 20% of car traffic between the two cities.

Significant progress has been made but there are still a lot of questions, none bigger than the obligatory, Is this going to happen?

“One thing I can tell you is if you have the money, the work can be done quickly,” says Teng. “This is not planned like the California (San Francisco to LA) high-speed rail, where the money comes piece by piece. If you have the money already, construction can be really fast, and it can be started from any place along the line.”