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High-Speed Train Plan May Move Forward

Vegas-to-border leg may get funding. But it's still a long way from there to its Anaheim goal.

May 09, 2005|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

A partnership of government and industry in southern Nevada plans to spend $1.3 billion to build the nation's first super-fast train.

Where do they want to put it after more than two decades of effort? From Las Vegas to Primm, a three-hotel sideshow on the Nevada-California border. It's best known for an outlet mall, the giant Desperado roller coaster and a bullet-riddled 1934 Ford that carried the infamous Bonnie and Clyde to their deaths.

Critics say the proposal is a train to nowhere. Supporters see a low-cost right of way through the desert that will lead to a revolution in ground transportation: the first commercially successful "maglev" -- magnetic levitation -- passenger service.

The vision belongs to a Nevada state commission that has tenaciously clung to the idea of building a 270-mile high-tech system from Las Vegas to Anaheim.

After almost 25 years of study and frustration, the project is now competing with Maryland and Pennsylvania for $950 million in federal funds earmarked for maglev development.

The technology uses magnetic force to propel trains on a cushion of air down a guideway at speeds of more than 300 mph. Power comes from an electrical charge in the guideway that attracts magnets in the train, pulling it forward. Only one, in China, is in commercial operation.

"This is going to be an E-ticket ride," said Bruce Aguilera, chairman of the California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commission. "It is the modern equivalent of the iron horse."

Just four years ago, the Nevada proposal wasn't even in the running for federal money. The only finalists were a 39-mile line between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and a 54-mile system between the Pittsburgh suburbs and the airport. Their estimated costs: about $5 billion and $4 billion, respectively.

But with the help of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the powerful chairman of the House transportation committee, Nevada might get its dream shot, perhaps as early as this month. The maglev is part of the massive transportation bill that has passed the House and is now pending in the Senate. Congress will decide which of the three maglev projects will be funded, and more than one may get the go-ahead.

The Las Vegas-to-Primm train would be part tourist attraction, part transit operation. If it is built, proponents in the Silver State hope it will encourage California to extend the line from Primm to Anaheim by 2015.

Trains would stop in Barstow, Victorville and Ontario before arriving in Anaheim, which is planning a regional transportation center to accommodate trains and transit buses.

The cost of the entire line has been estimated at more than $12 billion. Financing is expected to come from government funds, profits from fares and bond sales. Such a system, supporters say, would benefit tourism in Nevada and California, provide a competitive alternative to regional airlines and allow travelers quick access to Ontario International Airport.

Backers also predict that the new train would ease traffic on Interstate 15, a heavily traveled corridor from San Diego that leads to Las Vegas via the Inland Empire. No longer would motorists from Southern California have to drive four hours or more to reach Las Vegas or spend almost as much time flying from commercial airports with their heightened security, they say.

Maglev is expected to make the trip to Anaheim in 87 1/2 minutes. It would take just 12 minutes for the 40-mile hop to Primm, where a park-and-ride facility for motorists is planned.

The project would be built under a franchise granted to a consortium of companies, including General Atomics, Parsons Transportation Group, Hirschfeld Steel Co. and Transrapid International-USA Inc.

Transrapid, which is owned by Siemens AG and ThyssenKrupp AG in Germany, has designed the technology. The firm helped build China's maglev system between Shanghai and the city's airport 19 miles away. It attracts roughly 8,000 riders a day.

The consortium predicts that 13 million people will ride the Las Vegas-to-Primm line the first year of operation, providing a $50-million annual profit. The complete system is projected to attract 39 million riders in 2015, generating more than $500 million in profit.

Proponents hope to tap the enormous popularity of Las Vegas, which now attracts about 38 million visitors a year -- 27% of them from Southern California.

Though maglev is the railroad equivalent of the supersonic Concorde, there is nothing fast about the effort to build the Nevada line, let alone the entire system.

Stalled by political setbacks and a chronic shortage of capital, not one foot of maglev guideway has been constructed after almost 25 years of study.

It was originally predicted that the system, which at one time included California and Nevada, would have been finished eight years ago. But the initial builder, giant Bechtel Corp., abandoned the project in 1991 because of a lack of capital.

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