Show me the riders


Advocates of dueling proposals to build a high-speed train from Las Vegas to Southern California have been filling a lot of local news columns lately. One train would terminate in Anaheim, while the other would stop in Victorville. One would use magnetic levitation technology and go 300 mph, while the other would employ conventional motorized technology and top out at 150 mph. One would be considerably cheaper than the other.

The comparisons are interesting, and the politics are even more intriguing. Which train proposal will gain the upper hand? Why did Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., suddenly change allegiances? Why is Victorville -- not exactly the shining star of the L.A. metroplex -- the desired terminus for one of the trains?

This is all fascinating, but amid these discussions, a fundamental question has yet to be sufficiently answered: How many Southern Californians really want to ride a train to Las Vegas? Without a decent answer, the debates over technology, speed and cost are moot. If nobody wants to take the train to Las Vegas, a lot of time and money could be wasted.

Here are some things we know:

-- Most residents of the American Southwest own cars. We drive almost everywhere, and we aren't accustomed to relying on other forms of transportation. The mass transit culture of New York City, say, just hasn't gained traction yet in this part of the country.

-- For many Southern Californians, driving to Las Vegas is a time-honored pastime, memorialized in everything from Hunter Thompson's book "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" to the recent hit movie "The Hangover." We know there's something about driving across the Mojave Desert that appeals to Southern Californians cooped up too long in the smog-draped hives of humanity hugging the Pacific. It takes them four to six hours to make the journey, just enough time to shake off their daily anxieties and gear up for a rip-roaring weekend in the gambling capital. And when they get here, they don't have to pay for or hassle with taxis or rental cars.

-- The highways linking Southern California with Las Vegas have some issues but for the most part motorists move along at a steady clip. It's not like the highways are so rough or narrow or congested that they represent a deterrent to making the drive.

-- Flying between Southern California and Las Vegas is cheap and easy. The flights are short, and the airlines offer affordable rates. There are several different airports in Southern California to choose from, giving most everybody a convenient option.

So, considering these things we know, is it possible there's no pressing need or demand for a high-speed train?

Here's another thing we know: Starting or ending your train trip in Victorville doesn't make much sense. That small inland city would be the western terminus for the DesertXpress, the conventional technology train.

Nothing against Victorville, but it isn't many people's idea of a vacation destination. If you live in Las Vegas and want to visit Southern California, you just don't think of stopping in Victorville unless you have family there.

And if you live in Southern California and want to go to Las Vegas, you'd have to drive to Victorville, park your car (probably for a fee) and then get on the train. I suspect that by the time most people escape the L.A. traffic and reach Victorville, they'd be inclined to drive themselves the rest of the way.

Maglev train advocates say their project would carry an initial passenger load of 43 million per year. DesertXpress supporters believe their train would carry 10 million. But what if these estimates are overly optimistic?

Consider the Las Vegas Monorail, which sold itself based on ridership estimates that, even in the best of economic times, it never came close to achieving. Today, the monorail is teetering on the verge of default and talking about a taxpayer bailout.

Consider also the Las Vegas Springs Preserve. It's a wonderful place, protecting historic open space in the middle of the city and educating the public about the desert environment. But the marketing research about visitorship was way off the mark, especially when it came to attracting tourists.

Finally, consider Amtrak, which ceased service to Las Vegas in 1997 primarily because of low ridership.

I'd like to be more optimistic. If millions of people rode a maglev train between Las Vegas and Southern California instead of driving or flying, it would be good for the environment. Even the motorized train probably would be a net gain.

But experience suggests the train would have to be an incredible bargain to attract the bulk of Southern Californians now driving or flying here. Both projects say they would be "competitive" with other modes of transportation. But "competitive" isn't going to cut it. It has to be dirt cheap, which surely would throw the business plan out of whack.

Much like professional sports, the high-speed train feels a little too ambitious and risky for Las Vegas right now. It feels like it ought to remain on the back burner a while longer.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is the Review-Journal's director of community publications. His column appears Friday.

 

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