Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Train to Nowhere

I'm a big fan of rail transport in general, and of high-speed rail in particular. I worked very hard to get Prop 1A passed in November '08 (though in retrospect I should've worked harder to defeat 8...), I am looking forward to taking the CA-HSR system when it becomes operational, I've ridden high-speed rail in Europe (France's TGV), and I find rail travel to be my favourite mode of transportation whenever it's available. I'm the sort of person who puts up with the bus-to-Bakersfield model of the San Joaquin service rather than fly or drive to the Bay Area. So understand that I have very good reasons for saying the following:

DesertXPress is a BAD idea.

For those of you who don't know, DesertXPress is a privately-funded consortium determined to build a high-speed train system from Southern California to Las Vegas, including a connection to the Vegas monorail system. The all-electric train wants to charge around $100 round trip and would get people from SoCal to Vegas in a little under an hour and a half. What's not to love, right?

Except that "Southern California" in this case translates to "Victorville."

I grew up in the high desert. (Wrightwood, to be precise.) I understand Vegas traffic- we'd call it Friday Night Freak-Out. Everyone knew up there that you didn't want to be on I-15 heading up the pass on a Friday night, nor down the pass Sunday morning. And on the first day of a three-day weekend? You'd be better off hiking. But that's just the thing. The traffic we feared wasn't in the wide, long, exit-free superhighway that stretches across the desert like a monotonous asphalt ribbon of doom past Apple Valley. Getting to, say, Barstow wasn't a problem on Friday nights. It was the Cajon Pass that was essentially unnavigable. You know, the stretch of freeway that LA drivers would have to navigate to get to a Victorville rail terminal.

Not only is there no rail connection* between Victorville and Los Angeles (which would be ideal for DesertXPress' success), but there is no public transport connection whatsoever. The only, tenuous link between the desert and the rest of the LA basin, the Victor Valley Commuter, was severed back in 2006 due to funding problems. (I used to ride the giant, peach-and-turquoise coaches often.) So the question that we should ask of DesertXPress is, who wants to drive their car through the traffic-choked LA freeways, up the equally traffic-choked Cajon Pass, and then pay for a train ride that will get them around the part of the Vegas drive that's normally smooth sailing?

Many commenters over at Curbed LA have suggested that the train be extended to Palmdale, where there is currently Metrolink service 7 days a week, and where the California High-Speed Rail system will eventually make a stop. Others have gone so far as to suggest that DesertXPress trains could run down the CA-HSR corridor, providing a single-seat ride into Union Station. (NOTE: It was pointed out to me via e-mail that this idea is also held by the CEO of DesertXPress. No comment on it from CA-HSR yet.) But spending millions on a high-speed rail line to Victorville is just a lousy idea.

*There is technically a rail link between LA and Victorville- the
Southwest Chief
runs one train daily in each direction. The train from LA arrives in VV around 2200, and the return leaves VV around 0300.


Anonymous said...

Since this no more than an amusement park ride for the Las Vegas casinos they need to be the ones who pay for it 100% Should any of us other than the Las Vegas businesses who will benefit from this pay for any part of this? Good luck with their plans and good luck with any kind of ridership and good luck with only privet no tax funding paying for it. Who is going to drive to Victorville then park their car there to take the train and would be with out their car after they reach Las Vegas.

The California High Speed Rail between Northern and southern California cities is something that is wanted and needed so lets put our energy and funding there where the HSR can provide a real service.

Anonymous said...

DesertXpress is the nation’s first privately funded, exclusive (passenger-only) high speed interstate passenger railroad. The high speed rail system is being developed to provide a convenient and efficient travel alternative to Interstate 15, without tax payer dollars. Traffic on the I-15 is expected to grow 60% during the next several years. There are no public funds programmed, nor plans developed, to widen this highway over the majority of its length, which in most places has only two through lanes in each direction. A new transportation alternative is needed to mitigate traffic congestion on I-15

Anonymous said...

Victorville is the key to making the project financially viable by avoiding the inestimable high cost and environmental and community impacts of extending the line over Cajon Pass into the LA Basin; while bringing the service close enough to the majority of Southern Californians who drive to and from Nevada to make the project successful. The Victorville hub station diverts over 25% of the auto passengers off the road, thus providing much needed relief and bringing more people to Las Vegas by delivering high quality, frequent and reliable service in less time than it takes for most people to drive all the way across the Mojave Desert, or park, wait in line, board and fly to Las Vegas.

JN said...

Anon 3/9: You're right. Nobody but the Vegas casinos should pay for it. At the moment, that's who's paying for it. DesertXPress isn't asking for any tax dollars. They are asking for some right-of-way and environmental clearances, but that's nothing more than we give to strip-mall and shopping centre develoeprs already. I don't object at all to the financing of the plan, and if they can make it work, more power to them.

Anon 9/10: I agree entirely that traffic mitigation measures are absolutely necessary on I-15, and soon. Where you and I disagree, however, is where those measures are necessary. I feel that we need a transportation alternative for Vegas traffic over the Cajon Pass much more than we need one between Victorville and Las Vegas. Besides, people who drive as far as Victorville have already gone half the way. I doubt most of them will see the need to take the train thereafter. Perhaps the project will not be financially viable if it takes on the expense of building trackage over the Pass, but I don't believe it's anything more than the HSR equivalent of San Jose's light rail if they don't- an expensive toy that often runs with empty trains.

DesertXPress might consider seeking public funding for trackage over the Pass. Metrolink might be interested in extending a line to Victorville- an agreement where the two systems share trackage and construction costs might be beneficial to both. I'd much rather see a public-private partnership run a train all the way into the L.A. Basin (At least to San Bernardino, with a convenient Metrolink connection to both LA and the OC) than a completely privately-funded one run to Victorville, and I think most riders would agree with me.

Oh, and guys, while I appreciate the comments, I'd appreciate if you'd at least sign your posts. You don't have to log in, but I hate talking back to "Anon 9/10".

JN said...

Edit... Anon 9/3 in above comment.