By Noel T. Braymer
While politics casts a damper on High Speed Rail construction in the San Joaquin Valley. California’s other High Speed Rail project is moving right along. Virgin Trains USA has an agreement with the State of California to lease the median in the I-15 freeway between the border of California/Nevada to Victorville. This will allow construction of an elevated railroad for high speeds on a significant segment of the new rail alignment. Virgin Trains USA is also in discussion with Nevada to lease the I-15 median from the State Border to Las Vegas for High Speed Rail service.
Just recently Virgin Trains USA reported that they are planning to extend construction south of Victorville along the I-15 as far as Rancho Cocamonga in the future. This will greatly expand the travel market with connections to the Los Angeles Area. Using the empty freeway median will greatly simplify construction and lower costs as well as allow faster construction. A major problem with the High Speed Rail project in the San Joaquin Valley has been the need to condemn private property to build a new right of way. This has been a very slow and often contentious process which is a major factor in the rising final costs of the California High Speed Project.
A major factor in breaking the deadlock for Virgin Trains USA has been the State of California’s approval of issuing billions of dollars in bonds for Virgin Trains USA to start construction between Victorville and Las Vegas. Virgin Trains USA has many other construction projects underway in Florida. Virgin is already building expanded future service to Orlando and other major cities in the State of Florida. While construction continues in Florida, the original Virgin Trains USA service in the Miami area is shut down for now. But it will be connected to the rest of the State of Florida when service is expanded in Florida.
What is driving Virgin Trains USA on the west coast is its acquisition of XpressWest. XpressWest has for years been promoting High Speed Rail not just between Southern California and Las Vegas. But also across much of the western United States. XpressWest pioneered the idea of leasing freeway medians for mostly elevated railroads where such rights of ways are available. It is difficult to acquire right of way on the older freeways in California which wouldn’t be straight enough for High Speeds. Elevated rail structures are cheaper than tunnels and more flexible to build.
Are there any lessons to be learned from the XpressWest model? The proof will be in the pudding I guess. Clearly having access to public land reduces costs and avoids costly battles with private property owners. This can be integrated with existing railroad rights of ways to connect to more travel markets. There are already plans to build a rail connection sharing a new roadway between Palmdale and Victorville with Virgin Trains USA. The XpressWest model won’t work in all cases, but there are some that will work very well.
There may be lessons from the XpressWest model that could be used for High Speed Rail service between Northern and Southern California. Some of these include raising income from development coming from increased travel with High Speed Trains. Development was always a major source of income at or near stations.The key to an efficient and valuable transportation system are connections to many places with rapid and frequent services to as many markets as possible.