Maglev promoters’ dreams bigger than 747

When the Wright brothers launched themselves into history with their first powered flight in 1903, suggesting an aircraft would someday transport 500 passengers on 15-hour flights would earn you a one-way ticket to the loony bin.

But 66 years later, the Boeing 747 — with a wingspan that is more than double the length of the Wright’s first flight — forever changed the way we travel.

Neil Cummings, president of the American Magline Group, points to this when touting his plans to ferry passengers between Anaheim, Calif., and Las Vegas in 81 minutes via a magnetically levitated train.

"This is what people want to see," he said. "This is what will hold up as an example of a 21st century high-speed train."

Cummings is all too familiar with critics complaining that the cost of maglev technology is far too high for the train to ever become a reality. He realizes the federal government hasn’t exactly thrown its support behind it. He recognizes that some train experts call his project a fantasy, a pipe dream.

No one seems to make the connection between the Wright brothers and 747s when it comes to bullet trains, Cummings said.

OK, say we get that relationship. But what are the chances that we are going to see a maglev pull into Las Vegas?

"I think I’d like to say 100 percent, because that’s the way I feel about it," Cummings said. "But I don’t think anyone is going to believe me. Given what we’ve accomplished so far, and what’s on the table, there is no reason I don’t give this an 85 percent chance of coming together."

Sounds great, but Sen. Harry Reid’s allegiance lies with a steel-wheeled train; and it appears Reid also has convinced U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood — the guy who doles out gobs of federal funds — that the DesertXpress is the better project.

"They are not competition to us," Cummings said. "None of our projection numbers include dropping people off and picking up passengers in Victorville. We’re moving ahead no matter what."

Also fantastic, but how can we be convinced this isn’t a bunch of smoke-blowing drivel?

"Everybody in this country who has been talking high-speed trains the last 30 years has been blowing smoke, because nothing of significance has happened because our government wasn’t committed," Cummings said.

Our government might be committed to high-speed rail, but not necessarily to the magnetic sort. Cummings blames Nevada’s elected officials’ fragmented support for the government’s decision to shy away after initially backing the idea as recently as last year.

"In retrospect, I bet they wish they had taken us up on this," Cummings said. "What better place to demonstrate 300 mph technology than Las Vegas, and we’d be breaking ground right now."

Chinese investors offered to sink $7 billion into the project — enough to cover starter segments in California and Nevada — if the U.S. government agreed to pay them back should the maglev folks fail to generate enough revenue to pay back the loan.

Here is why Cummings believes the $12 billion maglev will be a money-maker and why he is confident that, if it is built alongside the DesertXpress, it will blast the steel-wheeled train off its tracks.

For $1.3 billion, the first leg between Las Vegas and Primm can be built, and Cummings said that segment alone would generate about $50 million in net profit annually.

Tourists will pay to ride it, and locals would embrace the 12-minute ride to shop or attend a concert, Cummings said.

Then there is Ivanpah airport.

Cummings said the Ivanpah airport would provide a huge boost in ridership on maglev’s shorter route.

The only problem is the Ivanpah airport was supposed to serve as a "relief" airport for McCarran, which was quickly reaching its capacity years ago. Not only has Ivanpah been put on hold indefinitely, but with a drop in passengers at McCarran and airlines cutting flights, Ivanpah no longer may be needed.

No problem, Cummings said, the $50 million profit figure is without Ivanpah. This number is based on passengers paying $4 to $6 each way between Primm and Las Vegas.

The second phase would carry Southern Californians from Anaheim to Ontario International Airport, transforming an hour-and-a-half drive into a 15-minute trip by train. Cummings said Ontario is sparsely used by Los Angeles passengers, even though congestion and delays at closer-by airports have become the norm.

"If no one wants to drive to Ontario to take an airplane, they’re not going to drive to Victorville to take a train," Cummings said, referring to the high-desert town 50 miles northeast of Ontario.

The DesertXpress’ first leg would be from Las Vegas to Victorville. The train’s representatives claim it will eventually hook up to Palmdale and California’s future high-speed network, but Cummings doubts the initial segment will generate enough funds to succeed.

Even if it does, who cares? Let them chug their way to Victorville in 84 minutes, Cummings said.

"If Las Vegas is going to have a high-speed train, I don’t think you want it to stop in the middle of the desert," he said. "We’re not saying that steel-wheeled is bad; we’re just saying that this corridor is perfect for maglev."

Departure times would be so frequent on the maglev line, reservations wouldn’t be needed. Wake up on a Saturday, plunk down $110 for a round-trip ticket, catch an Angels game and return home that evening. Not bad.

What about the environment? These trains are silent. According to testimonials from visitors to a test facility in Germany, the crowd’s attention is drawn away from the guideway only yards away. They are in awe when they learn the maglev had passed behind them without their knowledge.

And the tourists. Oh the tourists! We all know that 30 percent of our visitors hail from Southern California. We all have heard that Interstate 15 is the deadliest road in the nation.

So how many more visitors could Las Vegas attract with a zippity new train? Boatloads. OK, 747-loads.

"I guarantee you the maglev will deliver the equivalent of 50 fully loaded 747s landing every hour," Cummings said.

Should we reserve a one-way ticket to the looney bin?

If you have a question, tip or tirade, call Adrienne Packer at 702-387-2904, or send an e-mail to roadwarrior@reviewjournal .com. Please include your phone number.

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