Will California’s First High Speed Train go to Las Vegas?

By Noel T. Braymer

It is looking more and more that California’s first High Speed Train will go to Las Vegas. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, a major supporter of California- Las Vegas High Speed Rail service, says he has been talking with Governor Brown about the future of California-Las Vegas High Speed Rail. Senator Reid has said that an announcement about a new financial plan for the project will be made soon that will get Las Vegas High Speed Rail back on track.

The comeback of Las Vegas High Speed Rail seems to be a major factor in the recent push by the California High Speed Rail Authority to accelerate work on the Burbank to Palmdale segment ahead of extending High Speed Rail construction south of Bakersfield to Palmdale. A major advantage of construction of High Speed Rail to Las Vegas is the lack of people living along the route. Most of the Las Vegas Line will be built on the I-15 Freeway right of way to Victorville. Since it would be built on a freeway right of way, there are fewer environmental impacts to deal with than there would be building across open desert. Between Victorville and Palmdale the High Speed Trains will share right of way with a new highway between these 2 cities which is now being planned.The hardest and slowest part of future construction will be the tunneling between the San Fernando Valley and Palmdale. The cost of construction for most of the way to Las Vegas will be much lower than for California High Speed Rail and the construction time much shorter.

The significance of this proposed project is that most of it will be built in California. It would have a major impact no doubt for Las Vegas. But it can also have a major impact in California, particularly if it is extended past Burbank and Los Angeles. Having trains with local stops in addition to express Las Vegas trains, would make it a truly intra-California service. This could include extra stations for local service in the San Fernando Valley, Antelope Valley, Victor Valley and Barstow. Such a service will open economic development in these areas and increase passenger rail traffic.

The big question is how soon can a segment be finished between Palmdale and Bob Hope Airport in Burbank. It will be 2 or 3 years just to complete planning before even thinking about starting construction. Like all big projects the original proposed route had opposition from property owners near the route. Now with consideration of a new route and tunnel bypassing Santa Clarita and starting in the San Fernando Valley, property owners near the possible new route are voicing alarm. There is a good chance this new route will bypass most property owners in the San Fernando Valley by turning northeast from the current railroad just downhill of the Hansen Dam area which is largely unoccupied to go to a portal into the San Gabriel Mountains.

If the tunnel to Palmdale is given priority, it might be built in 6 to 8 years from now, between 2020 to 2022. The current plan is to start High Speed Rail service from Burbank to Bakersfield and Merced by 2022. Both San Joaquin Valley and Las Vegas service will depend on how soon the Burbank to Palmdale segment is finished.

The question of terminating High Speed Rail at Burbank often comes up. Why isn’t California High Speed Rail going to Los Angeles in 2022 instead of 2029 as now planned? A big reason for this is the cost and complexity of building the last few miles into downtown Los Angeles. Two alternatives are being looked at into Los Angeles. Both assume miles of either elevated structures or tunnels south of Glendale to reach a new High Speed Rail Station next to Los Angeles Union Station. This will reduce running times over the current rail route and avoid local impacts from building a surface alignment.Also this new route will have more capacity than the existing route.

Extending electrification south of Burbank to Los Angeles on an intern basis is possible. It will take some time to build traffic for High Speed Rail without direct service to Los Angeles. It would be unlikely that all trains would be extended if this were to happen. The California High Speed Rail Authority is assuming from the beginning to run 32 trains a day between Burbank and Merced. When service is extended to San Francisco the number will rise to 64 daily trains by 2029. Still extending some trains with electrification to Union Station will help early ridership of some trains and could be the start of electrifying local services at Union Station.

The next question is what about service south of Union Station? If we are talking about electrification, the issue is which tracks will be electrified? Full service from Burbank to Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Francisco is planned for 2029. To get to Anaheim, this will have to wait until there are 4 tracks between Los Angeles and Fullerton on the BNSF mainline. What is holding up construction of the 4 tracks is the need to fully grade separate the railroad between Los Angeles and Fullerton first. This won’t happen until after 2022.

With 4 tracks, passenger trains will have their own double tracked railroad with speeds up to 110 miles per hour and there can be many more passenger trains run than now when sharing the railroad with freights. The freights would have their own double tracked railroad all on the same right of way. Once 4 tracks are built, it will be possible to electrify the 2 passenger tracks and run High Speed Trains to Anaheim by 2029.

So, the next ten years or so are going to be busy with new rail construction and new services. The plans will continue to change and evolve as circumstances change. As the pieces of this High Speed Rail system fall into place, ridership and utilization of California’s expanding rail network will increase. But at the base of this will depend on a healthy and growing network of rail and bus services feeding ridership to the more glamorous High Speed Rail Lines.

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