Anyone who attended high school in Southern California during the 1970s and 1980s had a fair chance of listening to a teacher predict that by the time the students were middle-aged, they would be zipping comfortably across California courtesy of a high-speed rail network.
It made sense, but then so did converting to the metric system.
Cultural resistance has kept Americans firmly rooted in their cars over the last 30 years, but a California high-speed rail line finally seems to be on the brink of reality. Groundbreaking is expected this spring on DesertXpress, a line whose appeal and prospects rest in its destination: Las Vegas.
But its fundamental risk lies at the other end of the line: Victorville, in the high desert, some 80 freeway miles north and east of downtown Los Angeles, atop the Cajon Pass.
Depending on who's asked, the proposed line ends at Victorville because crossing the Cajon Pass is cost-prohibitive, or the technology doesn't exist for DesertXpress to traverse the pass, or the backers have difficulty securing rights of way in the L.A. basin — or all of the above.
Tom Skancke, a founder of the multi-agency Western High Speed Rail Alliance, sees the Vegas-to–Southern California line as the beginning of a high-speed rail network linking Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and L.A.
If that seems overly ambitious given the three-decade paralysis America has suffered on high-speed rail, Skancke says the stars finally are beginning to align for it. The Obama administration sees rail as a crucial element of its agenda, and states are desperately hungry for infrastructure jobs that will put large numbers of people back to work.
And in metro areas such as Greater Los Angeles, traffic lanes and airspace are simply at capacity, according to Skancke.
Attempting to add more is no longer a solution.
Xudong Jia, a professor of civil engineering at Cal Poly Pomona and an expert on travel-demand management, agrees that the time is ripe for the United States to develop a high-speed rail network, and that the Victorville-to-Vegas line offers a critical foot in the door.
The paramount question facing DesertXpress, Jia says, is whether the adage “Build it and they will come” will be true for the rail line, or will the Vegas power players behind it find themselves holding a multibillion-dollar stiff?
Supporters believe enough people will drive those first 80 miles from Los Angeles, then pull off the freeway at Victorville and plunk down a C-note for a smooth, fast and safe round-trip over the remaining 190 miles, preferring the train to the nightmarish traffic snarls and drunken drivers who often make I-15 a race with the devil: You never know what's going to happen.
Skancke says as many as 3 million of the 11 million Californians traveling to Vegas each year by car could make the jump to rail, with a peak weekend seeing as many as 150,000 riders on the line.
“The feasibility of this proposal really rests in how confident can they be that they will be able to draw enough passengers away from cars and planes,” Jia says. “They have to honestly ask themselves, who is their rider? Where are they? How many of them are there? How often can they realistically be expected to make use of this line? What are they deriving their passenger projections on? Hopefully not Europe or Asia, since this is America and California, where an entirely different culture is in play. They are flying in the dark.”
Since DesertXpress is seeking multibillion-dollar financing from the federal Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program, an early death for high-speed rail in the California and Nevada deserts would leave taxpayers holding the bag and have profound implications for the future of passenger rail.
That's why the Victorville station is such a wild card.
“Their rider projections are pure speculation,” says M. Neil Cummings, a Los Angeles attorney and president of the American Magline Group, a DesertXpress competitor. “The termination point in Victorville is just deadly, no matter how they try to spin it.”
Cummings' group has long championed an alternative high-speed rail proposal that would use magnetic-levitation technology to take passengers from Anaheim and Ontario through Victorville to Las Vegas in nearly the same amount of time the DesertXpress would be able to whisk riders from Victorville to Las Vegas. Maglev, already in use in China and coming to Europe, can propel railcars at speeds in excess of 300 mph.
The DesertXpress project calls for electric cars on traditional steel wheels with top speeds above 200 mph. For all of maglev's ultimate promise — none of which is really diminished by the rise of DesertXpress — perhaps its greatest challenge was coming fast enough.
The maglev proposal seemed to have the wind at its back for years, but its fortunes shifted suddenly in Nevada when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, effectively dumped it during his tight 2010 re-election campaign in favor of DesertXpress. Reid's sudden horse trade smacked of crass politics, as DesertXpress investor and Nevada Republican power broker Sig Rogich announced he was forming “Republicans for Reid” shortly after Reid's announcement.
But whatever juice they line up in Washington, D.C., and however deep the marker Uncle Sam cuts them, the Cajon Pass looms like the Donner Pass in cruel winter if DesertXpress can't find a way into downtown Los Angeles, Orange County and the Inland Empire. And the company knows it.
Plans currently call for a Victorville-to-Palmdale rail extension, which would then put riders a transfer or two away from Union Station downtown. But that's far from a done deal — as is the planned high-speed line to Northern California, which would carry riders to Palmdale.
Veteran Las Vegas journalist Steve Sebelius says the Palmdale extension may be either the salvation of DesertXpress or its Achilles' heel.
“Look, if you don't get the Palmdale-to-Victorville link, you've essentially got a train to Victorville. And that's a train to nowhere,” Sebelius says, noting that Rogich has been trying to tamp down such concerns.
“He's telling everyone who will listen, 'Don't worry, Palmdale is going to happen,' ” Sebelius says. “If I were a prospective investor, I would want guarantees that Victorville and Palmdale will be linked — soon — and Sig can't give guarantees like that.”
But for all the hurdles that DesertXpress has to jump — culturally, politically and economically — and for all those that still remain, one only needs to visualize traffic on the I-15 between Barstow and Vegas to induce nausea. Or consider the pleasantries of airport parking, security and the comforts of economy class for a stress-inflicted migraine.
Come what may, one thing is clear: A high-speed train is leaving the station.
And some of the most serious players in Vegas are betting it's going to be theirs.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.