LET’S GET RAIL: Will High-Speed Vegas Train Happen? Can It Succeed at $400 a Seat?

Estimated read time 6 min read

Brightline West, which broke ground last month, promises to travel at speeds of up to 200 mph along the I-15 median from Las Vegas to Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. It’s expected to open in 2028.

A rendering of a Brightline West train, which will advertise itself for free by zooming past I-15 motorists who seek a faster trip to Las Vegas next time. (Image: Brightline)

“I am firmly convinced that once the first customer buys that first ticket to ride a high-speed rail on American soil, there will be no going back,” US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said last month, after hammering a fake spike into a fake track to fake the project’s groundbreaking.

But will Brightline ever make it to the starting gate when half of its $12 billion budget is not yet accounted for? And can it possibly succeed when its passengers must still travel another 45 minutes to Los Angeles and if, as Brightline founder and chair Wes Edens estimated in March, the round-trip fare will be $400 per person?Casino.org put these tough questions to Harry Teng, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UNLV and one of five commissioners of the independent Nevada High Speed Rail Authority.

Harry Teng is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UNLV and one of five commissioners of the independent Nevada High Speed Rail Authority. (Image: Harry Teng)

Q: Talk of a Vegas-to-LA bullet train goes back to 2005, when Tony Marnell II, founder of the Rio, proposed XpressWest train to Victorville, Calif. Why did we have to wait more than 20 years to finally get it?

A: Before, we didn’t have the money. Now, we have this infrastructure bill passed two or three years ago. Also, Victorville is kind of nowhere. Now, they’re doing it the right way.

Q: President Biden’s infrastructure bill provides $3 billion in taxpayer dollars, along with access to $3.5 billion in tax-exempt bonds, for the project. But where is the other half of its $12 billion budget coming from?

A: They will raise private funds. Wes Edens is a multi-billionaire who co-owns the Milwaukee Bucks and Aston Villa Football Club, and he wants to bring a Major League Soccer team to Las Vegas. I don’t see this as a major issue.

Q: Are there any engineering issues with construction? 

A: This is one thing that I’m really, really worried about. There are many challenges with running a train in the median of a freeway. The freeway has curves that are much sharper than is safe for high-speed trains. Cars can take them going 80, 90, or 100 mph. But the standard speed for high-speed rail is 180 mph. So they have to lower the speed as they approach those curves.

But I think the most dangerous thing will be strong wind — particularly if they run two trains linked together. That will require a stronger track to counter the wind force.  We have a desert wind that sometimes comes from nowhere and is very unpredictable.

But in the summer, it’s really hot and that makes the rail softer and more vulnerable. All of that coming together is very challenging.

Q: So how can they solve that?

A: I think they’ll have to put sensors along the track so that they can monitor the wind and temperature, and those sensors will tell the train when it has to slow down. They cannot rely upon weather stations because they are usually far away from the track.

This is really critical if they are to avoid crashes.

Q: The maximum gradient for trains is 1.8%, or mountain grade. But the El Cajon Pass has a gradient of 6% for 4 miles. Isn’t that a big problem, too?

A: No. Power is not a problem going at high speed. The train will be strong enough, with its momentum, to get up that hill.

Q: Is there anything that can stop this project at this point?

A: No, probably not.

Q: What about low demand once it opens? A ton of social-media commenters have already balked at paying more than the average airfare to arrive in Vegas without the convenience of a car. Brightline will cost about $1 per mile, yet the cost of driving a car is currently around 60 cents per mile, or $260 roundtrip. And, if you pile five people into your vehicle, the roundtrip cost plummets to $52 per person. That’s versus $400 on Brightline West!

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, left, and Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto drive pretend rail spikes into a pretend rail at a press conference announcing the groundbreaking on April 22. (Image: eenews.net)

A: I think that price could be a little high, but it’s all about how they play the game. If there are no people to ride on the train, they automatically have to lower the price. The market controls everything. They cannot play with the market.

But I think they can differentiate prices. Veterans can be free and seniors can pay less. They can offer four luxury cars for $400 a seat and then 16 cars of coach for $250. I also think they can charge more on Fridays and Sundays, when people will pay much more to get to and from Las Vegas in 2 hours when it could take 6-10 hours in traffic.

And they can run party trains, where people from Hollywood can drink wine and socialize for $1,000 round-trip.

It’s doable because this is a private train. They have the liberty to determine the price.

Q: But the passengers still have 45 minutes longer to travel to get to LA from Rancho Cucamonga. Doesn’t this factor against it?

A: Not really. Metrolink is a good system that can get you to a lot of places in Southern California. But Brightline and Metrolink will need to coordinate with each other so that the transfer is smooth, with no waiting for trains. The coordination is really critical. Brightline will probably have to pay Metrolink, somehow, to ensure that.

Q: Bottom line, do you think this train service will succeed?

A: Oh definitely, yes.  I think they will attract a lot of riders.

 

The post LET’S GET RAIL: Will High-Speed Vegas Train Happen? Can It Succeed at $400 a Seat? appeared first on Casino.org.

 

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