By Noel T. Braymer
Of course by Southern California I mean Victorville, not Los Angeles. For several years XpressWest had been proposing building high speed rail service between Las Vegas and Victorville with running times of 75 minutes. This would be fairly easy to build by using existing rights of way including elevated segments on the I-15 between Las Vegas and Victorville. This plan included electrification of the route for running speeds up to 150 miles per hour. A major sticking point to this project was a requirement of buying trainsets which had to be built in this country. What was being looked at by XpressWest were trainsets built by Bombardier in China. XpressWest was unable to secure funding to start construction and the project went nowhere for years until this summer. First, Virgin Trains USA bought the rights to build a new railroad on roughly 188 miles between Las Vegas and Victorville from XpressWest. Shortly after this Virgin Trains USA announced that construction would begin in 2020. But after some hemming and hawing Virgin Trains USA announced that it would be postponed for another 2 more years.
Not long after that this summer Xtrain announced that it would start operating Las Vegas Xpress. This would be a luxury train service starting (hopefully) by July 2020. The train would be operated by Amtrak from Los Angeles on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The train ride to and from Las Vegas is expected to take 4.5 hours to start. It looks like a station stop will be made at San Bernardino. This train would use BNSF and Union Pacific tracks. The running time is planned after the construction of double track between Las Vegas and Yermo to be reduced to 3.5 hours for Las Vegas Xpress.
It wasn’t long after this announcement by Las Vegas Xpress, that Virgin Trains USA announced that they now had funding and would start construction between Victorville and Las Vegas next year. What is being planned for just over $4 billion is service operating between 75 to 90 minutes between Victorville and Las Vegas. This is where the heaviest traffic is on the I-15 to and from Las Vegas. At Victorville will be built a large parking lot for people to get on the train and off the often jammed I-15. This has been the plan since the earliest planning for Las Vegas Xpress.
So what other plans are in the works for Los Vegas rail service? For several years Los Angeles County and San Bernardino County have been planning a new highway between Victorville and Palmdale. Construction for this should go quickly once funding is raised on this largely open land. What is planned in addition to a new highway, is a fast, passenger railroad right of way connecting Victorville and Palmdale. So far so good. The bottleneck is between Palmdale and Santa Clarita which has steep grades and many curves which keep train speeds low. Metrolink is planning improvements and expanded service between Los Angeles and Palmdale. What is interesting is the question of electrifying the Virgin Trains USA between Las Vegas and Los Angeles?
The original plan for XpressWest was to operate electric trains at speeds up to 150 miles per hour. Electric trains accelerate faster than diesel locomotives, travel faster up grades and are cleaner than even the cleanest diesel locomotives. The question might be should passengers transfer at Palmdale on Metrolink? Or should track improvements be made and the tracks electrified for both Metrolink and Virgin Trains USA? A third alternative would be to operate High Speed Rail service from Palmdale south to at least Los Angeles sharing tunnels and tracks with High Speed Trains to and from the San Joaquin Valley.
Most likely this will be done incrementally as funding and support for improvements becomes available.
One of the plans being looked now are running self propelled multiple unit trainsets which are faster, lighter and cheaper to run than a locomotive hauled train. Such equipment is now being studied for use in the east San Fernando Valley and northern Santa Clarita Valley. No doubt Virgin Trains USA will have many connections to multiple markets just in Southern California. These will also be linked to property developments sponsored by Virgin Trains USA. So where will Virgin Trains USA get electrified equipment? Well so far Virgin Trains USA has a good relationship with Siemens which is building their train equipment in Sacramento and would be open for more orders. Siemens experience with electric trains goes back to the late 19th century.