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Music, booze, gambling – the old Los Angeles-Las Vegas rail had it all. Can a new high-speed project fill the void? | California | The Guardian
Music, booze, gambling – the old Los Angeles-Las Vegas rail had it all. Can a new high-speed project fill the void? | California | The Guardian

The last time someone tried to run an eye-catching passenger train from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, in the early 1970s, it was more like a cruise ship than a regular rail service, a rollicking ride along an old freight line with booze, gambling and live music nicknamed the Crapshooters Express. It left California on a Friday and returned its passengers – drunker, poorer and not always happier – in time for work on Monday morning.

The idea did not catch on, largely because the journey took seven-and-a-half hours each way, almost twice as long as crossing the Mojave desert by car and more than seven times as long as flying. On the train’s star-studded inaugural run, the scotch, bourbon, gin and vodka all ran out within an hour. Amtrak agreed to run the service only because the Las Vegas hamber of commerce agreed to cover any losses and then only on weekends during the winter months. Passenger numbers fell off precipitously and after going through a few different iterations, the venture collapsed.

Now, though, the idea is being revived, not as an exercise in decadence and debauchery, but as a sleek, high-speed inter-city service with the potential to revolutionize public transportation across the United States.

Many ambitious US high-speed rail projects have come and gone over the past 15 years. The most ambitious of all – a bullet train that aims to whisk passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in less than three hours – remains stuck in a seemingly endless limbo. Public and private sector experts agree, though, that the LA-Las Vegas project holds a different kind of promise and as currently projected could be up and running as soon as 2027.

Unlike the California high-speed project, this one is not government-run but rather a private-public partnership led by a Florida-based company, Brightline, that already runs a successful commuter line from Miami to Palm Beach, soon to be extended to Orlando. The ambition is to build an all-electric train that can hit a maximum speed of 186 mph and make the journey from Las Vegas to the Los Angeles area in a little over two hours.

The site for a proposed station for the high-speed rail line to Las Vegas on the outskirts of Victorville, California.

The route would initially run from Las Vegas to a suburb on the LA commuter rail network. The company has indicated it wants to keep the cheapest one-way ticket at around $100, making it competitive with the cost of air travel.

So far at least, the line has avoided the pitfalls that tend to plague large-scale rail projects and send their budgets soaring. Brightline hasn’t had to worry much about buying land or obtaining right of way permits, because Las Vegas construction magnate Tony Marnell obtained the rights to build a track down the median of I-15, the desert highway linking Sin City to southern California, years before selling the project to Brightline in 2018.

The route doesn’t require a lot of expensive bridges or viaducts and environmental approvals have been relatively straightforward since the rail bed won’t do much damage that the highway isn’t already incurring.

Perhaps most strikingly, Brightline has proved adept at winning political support for its plans and is now in line for a $3.75bn federal grant through Joe Biden’s signature infrastructure bill that would allow construction to begin this summer. (The rest of the projected $12bn budget will be raised by Brightline’s parent company, a major private equity fund called the Fortress Investment Group.)

Over the past few weeks, the company signed an agreement with labor unions in Nevada and California, promising to use their members when hiring an anticipated 10,000 construction workers. It also lined up a bipartisan group of members of Congress from both states to write to the Biden administration in support of its plans.

Vehicles drive past farmland and part of the California high speed rail authority San Joaquin River viaduct construction project in August 2021.

A less savvy company might have run into a wall of resistance from California politicians anxious to direct as much funding as possible towards their own high-speed line, which has been in the works since voters approved a ballot initiative to fund it in 2008. If anything, though, the opposite has happened.

Fiona Ma, the California state treasurer, was once one of the most vocal proponents of the Los Angeles to San Francisco line but became convinced, soon after hearing Brightline’s proposal five years ago, that the Las Vegas line and the private ownership behind it pointed to a more promising future.

Any high-speed rail network, Ma said in an interview, “should not be run by the government”. She lamented the wasted time and money that has hamstrung the California high-speed rail project. And she pointed to problems with some of California’s regional commuter lines as other examples of public bodies that struggle to run a clean, safe, profitable service. “Government is not in the business of being efficient, that’s the bottom line,” she added.

Ma grew up loving trains – she was raised on Long Island and couldn’t imagine traveling into New York City any other way. When she traveled to Florida to see the Brightline operation first-hand, she was blown away not just by the ease of riding its line along the Atlantic coast but also by the attractiveness of the stations and the way they were inducing other investors to develop the surrounding land. “Oh my god, we need to have this system,” she remembered thinking. “They were doing everything right and reviving the neighborhoods where these train stations were.”

An image of Fiona Ma, the California state treasurer.

Ma has taken some heat for allying herself so closely with a private company. Internal documents obtained by Bloomberg News show that her staff worked hand-in-glove with Brightline when the company was applying for California state funding, and a Brightline staffer with Capitol Hill experience helped edit lobbying letters sent under Ma’s name to members of Congress. But to her this is not a sign of political favoritism – it is a high-stakes battle for the country’s future, and cooperation, she insists, is a normal part of any public-private partnership. (Brightline, for its part, said that since it was a government-licensed enterprise, engaging with elected officials wasn’t just desirable but a requirement.) The end goal, Ma added, was to get cars off congested roads, combat climate crisis and create the conditions for healthy job growth and community development. But the window for doing so was narrow, with minimal room for further error.

In 2021, around the time that the infrastructure bill was moving through Congress, Ma wrote a letter to Washington lawmakers saying it was not enough simply to throw billions of dollars at high-speed rail projects, as happened when the Obama administration invested close to $11bn, with not a single mile of completed track to show for it.

“A repeat effort that spends billions without getting any new lines operational after another decade will be the death of high-speed rail in America,” she warned. “There is simply no way the public will continue to support such an agenda.”

Such public impatience has been particularly evident among Republicans, who tend to regard rail as the embodiment of everything they hate about big government. There are exceptions – Brightline’s home state, Florida, is run by Republicans and a number of GOP members (13 in the House, 19 in the Senate) threw their support behind the infrastructure bill – but Ma is keenly aware that the time for effective action is now, with the White House occupied by a man nicknamed Amtrak Joe.

“There’s pressure on everyone to get it done,” she said in her interview.

A similar sense of urgency propels Brightline, not for partisan political reasons but because it sees a unique business opportunity and believes the United States cannot compete globally if it doesn’t embrace rail. “China has 26,000 miles of high-speed rail. We have zero,” is a mantra often repeated by company employees and by Wes Edens, the billionaire co-founder of Fortress Investment.

The one significant downside was that the line, as Brightline inherited it, stopped at the hardscrabble desert town of Victorville, about 90 miles short of downtown Los Angeles. Over the past five years, however, Brightline has managed to make plans for another 49 miles to Rancho Cucamonga, a suburban community on the LA Metrolink commuter rail system, and it hopes to be able to build further connections going forward.

If the project comes to fruition, Brightline hopes it will be the first of many high-speed links between cities that are, as it phrases it, “too close for flying but too far for driving” – Charlotte and Atlanta; Seattle and Portland; Dallas, Austin and Houston; Chicago, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, St Louis and Detroit. “This will be the first high-speed rail line in the country, and it can serve as a blueprint for how we make these systems in America over the next couple of decades,” Brightline spokesperson Ben Porritt said. “It’s important to show that this can be done.”

Ma, the state treasurer, has similarly high hopes for what could follow from a successful and profitable LA-Las Vegas route. She hopes, first of all, that it will force changes on the California high-speed line – whether that means an act of the legislature or another ballot initiative – to remove some of the strictures that have proved unworkable and, if she has her way, to open the project up to private as well as public investment. She disclosed that she has told Brightline’s leadership: “One day you will run the system.”

As Ma talked to the Guardian, she was sitting in a government car in four solid lanes of freeway traffic and watched as a Bart commuter train easily overtook her on the east side of the San Francisco Bay. “I’m not happy,” she said as she described the scene over the phone. “Driving’s becoming more difficult and airfare is becoming expensive … I believe in trains.”

This content was originally published here.