Richard Branson, whose Virgin Group brand is expected to have a growing presence in Las Vegas next year, hopes to leverage the presence of his international airline and hotel with his newest venture — passenger train service.
Branson attended the kickoff of Virgin Trains USA in Miami earlier this month and indicated he wants to develop tie-ins once the company’s high-speed rail line is in place between Victorville, California, and Las Vegas.
Brightline, the Florida train company controlled by privately held Fortress Investment Group LLC, received an investment from Branson and is transitioning to Virgin Trains USA brand. That group in March closed on the acquisition of the assets of XpressWest, which has worked since 2005 to acquire the permits necessary to build a $7 billion, 185-mile dual-track high-speed rail line between Victorville and Las Vegas. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Brightline has indicated it could build the Southern California line for less because of rail industry relationships it already has.
Virgin brand kickoff
Branson attended Virgin Trains kickoff events in Miami and West Palm Beach, Florida. He discussed some of his hopes for Las Vegas in a telephone interview from the train.
“We want to have some sort of relationship with Virgin Trains and the Virgin Hotel there — as well as every other hotel in Vegas,” Branson said.
Earlier this month, Virgin officials said the remodeling of the Hard Rock Hotel to Virgin would begin in February. The property is expected to be closed for the second and third quarters of 2020 and reopen as Virgin in November.
Virgin Atlantic international airline has two flights a week between McCarran International Airport and Manchester, England, and six to and from London’s Gatwick International Airport.
“There’s no question that we send a lot of people to holiday in Vegas on Virgin Atlantic and a lot of those people want to go on to Los Angeles,” Branson said.
Virgin Trains could serve that need.
Quietly working in California
Virgin Trains USA President Patrick Goddard said the focus of the Virgin kickoff in Miami was to celebrate the brand transition and build enthusiasm for the company’s next project, the extension of the line from West Palm Beach to Orlando. At the same time, the company is transitioning use permits on the California-Nevada project permits and preparing financing.
“We’re working vigorously on permitting and financing activities,” Goddard said in an interview. “Obviously, we’re focused on getting Orlando kicked off, but by the end of the year, we expect to be permitted and shovel-ready and close to or done with our financing.”
Company leaders opted against taking the company public after exploring the option of an initial public offering in November.
“The IPO was an alternative that was available to us,” he said. “We may take the company public sometime in the future, but we’re financed to Orlando and business is ramping up fantastically and we’re excited to start construction to Orlando.”
Goddard didn’t disclose the location of Virgin’s planned Las Vegas train station, only saying that it would be “adjacent to the Vegas Strip.” He confirmed that there wouldn’t be a maintenance facility in Nevada and that instead it would be built on the Victorville end.
He said he is hopeful the train station in Las Vegas would develop into an intermodal transportation hub.
“Once you build this connector between two large destinations, you end up getting approached by both public and private agencies that want to create further connectivity within those subhubs,” he said. “We expect the same thing to happen between L.A. and Vegas.”
In Miami, the station known as Virgin MiamiCentral is the hub for all things transportation, business, dining and entertainment in downtown Miami. It connects Metrorail, a heavy rail rapid transit system serving Dade County; Metromover, a free automated people mover system; Brightline and soon, Tri-Rail, a three-county commuter rail system.
Transportation and food hub
Virgin MiamiCentral also features Central Fare, a downtown Miami food hub that will soon debut, a Citi Bike share and designated drop-off and pick-up zone for Lyft, Brightline’s ride-hailing partner.
In Las Vegas, Goddard hopes buses, limousines and shuttles to McCarran International Airport or the Las Vegas Monorail line would develop.
One thing Las Vegas shouldn’t expect to have is an “auto train,” similar to what Amtrak offers between Washington D.C. and Orlando so that people could have access to their vehicles in Las Vegas and Southern California after riding the train.
“I say never say never, but why do you need your car in Las Vegas would be my question,” Goddard said. “It’s more of a burden than a benefit. Look at valet parking charges and congestion in Las Vegas and the fact that there’s a monorail and ride-share and limos, I’m not sure why you would need your car. It kind of defies the purpose. Our objective is to get you out of your car.”
Virgin Trains USA President Patrick Goddard isn’t too worried about Hyperloop or a transit system envisioned by Elon Musk stealing the thunder of his planned high-speed rail system between Southern California and Las Vegas.
Business partner Richard Branson once served on but resigned from Hyperloop board leadership and Goddard is convinced that Musk’s proposal to operate vehicles in a long-distance tunnel system isn’t viable.
“I’m rooting for it,” he said. “I think it’s great conceptually and could be a wonderful experience to be able to do that. I think there’s a long way to go in terms of making it economically viable and from an engineering perspective, practical.
“It’s very difficult to make it pencil at any way at this point. I’m not terribly concerned about it and I don’t see it actually materializing being viable from a financial or technical perspective in the next decade to two decades.”