Rail and roulette: Private high-speed line from Vegas to California is back on track

A plan already approved by the US government to build a high-speed rail link between Las Vegas and Southern California, which was abandoned in June 2016, is once more on the cards.

XpressWest, the company that first bet on the plan, has been bought by Brightline, a Miami-based railway developer who promises to use American, not Chinese, technology – a condition that made XpressWest fold.

Brightline is making something of a railway splash in the US. This year it opened the first ever privately funded intercity service in the US, between Palm Beach and Miami.

While a terminus in Los Angeles would represent the jackpot, the line will stop short of that conurbation. Brightline said on Tuesday (18 September) the line will run from Vegas to Victorville, a town about 20km northeast of LA.

Victorville is approximately 302km from Vegas along the I-5 freeway, alongside of which Brightline plans to lay the tracks to keep cost and disruption down.

In Las Vegas, Brightline will acquire 38 acres of land adjacent to the strip for a station and mixed-use development.

Depending on the hand it’s dealt, the company hopes to start work next year and start running trains in 2022.

In a third initiative, the company is funding a private intercity connection between Orlando and Miami, which also aims to be in business in the next three years.

Wes Edens, co-founder and chief executive of Fortress Investment Group, the parent of Brightline, said in a press statement: "Our experience in Florida is proving that private sector investment has a meaningful role to play in developing transportation infrastructure. We’re excited to bring Brightline’s world-class and convenient travel experience to Southern California and Las Vegas."

New York-based Fortress describes itself as "a highly diversified global investment manager with approximately $41.4bn of assets under management".

The terms of the purchase of XpressWest were not disclosed.

XpressWest’s plan was scuppered by the US government’s insistence that the line use trains made in America – whereas the project was predicated on China Rail International’s involvement, which would have meant using China’s high-speed trainsets. Brightline says its trains are "American-made and 100% Buy America-compliant".

Brightline says it plans to fund the scheme with private equity and to sell investors tax-exempt "private activity bonds".

There are questions over how fast the line will be. The Los Angeles Times comments that if Brightline follows the same model as in Florida, it will keep the velocity of trains well below the 320km/h of a standard Shinkansen, and "avoid exotic technology and private land takes".

XpressWest was planning to build its line for a relatively inexpensive $7bn, however Brightline said it would aim to cut that by half. It could use diesel locomotives and pass over mountains rather than boring tunnels.

Image: Brightline may run diesel trains on the Las Vegas link (Brightline)

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