All Aboard the Vegas Party Train!

Nov 27th, 2012 | Posted by

Recent reports suggest that the “X Train” – a conventional speed passenger rail service from Fullerton to Las Vegas – could become reality next year. And while this isn’t exactly high speed rail, it could demonstrate that there is strong ridership potential for passenger rail service from Southern California to Las Vegas.

Railway in America

From the LA Times:

Las Vegas Railway Express, the company that plans to operate a weekend, adults-only party train between Fullerton and Sin City, marked a milestone this month with the signing of an agreement with Union Pacific Railroad. The pact will allow the “X Train” to run on tracks that have carried only freight since Amtrak ceased passenger service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas 15 years ago.

The venture has purchased 16 rail cars, but they need to be refurbished before the trains can begin operating. Company officials say they hope to launch in time for New Year’s Eve 2013.

The trip from the Fullerton train station, which serves Amtrak and Metrolink, to a yet-to-be-built depot in downtown Las Vegas would take five hours. The Vegas-bound trains would depart on Thursday and Friday afternoons, with two return trips on Sundays.

Five hours seems fast to me, but I’m not complaining. And it’s great news that they’ve gotten Union Pacific, notoriously hostile to passenger rail, to agree to let them use their tracks for this service.

Who knows whether this service will break even and become a lasting success. I hope it does. But I suspect this will be an interim step between the current absence of passenger rail and the construction of true high speed rail from Southern California to Las Vegas with the XpressWest project. That will take several years to build, assuming the federal loans are given later this year, and so anything that can bridge that gap would be welcome.

The train’s schedule is a sensible one, with afternoon departures for people looking to get away for the weekend and Sunday return trips so folks can get home in time for Monday. We know that the drive to and from Vegas on Interstate 15 is a pain in the ass, especially given traffic. But sometimes, after a weekend of partying, you’re not in the mood to spend hours behind the wheel:

A potential passenger who was in Las Vegas from Orange County during the Thanksgiving holiday agreed.

“If you party really hard, it sucks driving back,” said John Lawson, 28.

Indeed it does. I’m guessing the return journey will be less of a “party train” and more of a “quiet car.” Hangover remedies should sell well.

  1. JJJ
    Nov 27th, 2012 at 20:59
    #1

    Why Fullerton?

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    Lack of capacity LAUS to Fullerton and at LAUS for a reception area. Not exactly sure what they plan for Fullerton but assume they will have the house track on the north side.

    Justin Walker Reply:

    Amtrak’s nearly-successful efforts to implement LA-LV service back in 1999-2002 would have used Metrolink’s San Gabriel Sub between LA and San Bernardino (with trains making their sole intermediate stop in Montclair).

    I’m sure the X Train could have easily made an agreement with Metrolink if a route to Union Station was the main concern. Was the reception area the real concern or did they not want to lose the Orange County market?

  2. D. P. Lubic
    Nov 27th, 2012 at 22:16
    #2

    “I’m guessing the return journey will be less of a “party train” and more of a “quiet car.” Hangover remedies should sell well.”

    I’m reminded of the old joke (note the prices of the vehicles) about the fellow who went to Las Vegas in a $10,000 car and came back in a $200,000 bus. . . (translation–he lost the car, came back on “the Hound”). . .

  3. Back in the Saddle
    Nov 27th, 2012 at 22:18
    #3

    The December issue of TRAINS MAGAZINE has a good financial and operational analysis of both the Xpress West and the X Train. Some serious questions are posed for both operations, however, the writer does feel that the X Train is more viable that Xpress West even if X Train needs to come up with $1 Billion.

  4. D. P. Lubic
    Nov 27th, 2012 at 22:38
    #4

    In other news (if you could call it that), the GOP still doesn’t like Amtrak. . .

    http://thehill.com/blogs/transportation-report/railroads/269117-gop-takes-aim-at-strengthened-amtrak

    . . .even after Amtrak reportedly had a good recovery from Sandy, even after Amtrak carries more passengers than before, and even after “Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman told lawmakers in October that the company’s fare collections paid for a record 79 percent of its operations last year.”

    Oh, and the commentors following the article on both sides look like a bunch of dummies.

    Other material:

    http://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/636/294/Amtrak-Sets-New-Ridership-Record-FY2012-ATK-12-092.pdf

    An interesting chart in this one:

    http://transportationnation.org/2012/10/10/amtrak-we-broke-another-ridership-record-49-growth-since-2000/

    And overall cash flow or farebox recovery (including other revenues) is at 85%. Even allowing for state support on some of the services, this is far better than what the highway system does:

    http://transportationnation.org/2012/09/20/amtrak-were-85-self-sufficient-pols-not-good-enough/

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    Now, how do we get that last 15%, and then some?

    To my eyes, that looks tantalizingly close. . .but what do I know?

    Nathanael Reply:

    Expansion (of the correct sort). Most of the cost in train service is fixed costs. More trains per day, going faster, raises a lot more revenue with only a little more in the way of costs.

  5. Andy M
    Nov 28th, 2012 at 04:08
    #5

    If the party train manages to establish itself as an attraction in its own right, it might even continue operating once Xpress West starts running.

    James M. in Irvine Reply:

    The key is forming customer loyalty early on, and keeping on spreading the word how fun it really is. Once XTRAIN travellers see cars sitting on the 15 while they boogie on past, word will spread in the travelles’ circles and more will try it. I hope it is successful.

    JimBo

    Peter Reply:

    More like once passengers in cars sitting on 15 see XTRAIN rolling past…

  6. Peter
    Nov 28th, 2012 at 07:12
    #6

    Can there be cars for regular people who’d just like to travel to Vegas, without the party? Like families? Maybe one end car designated the quiet car for the Vegas-bound leg?

    Andy M Reply:

    I don’t know to what extent the business concept of X-train relies on people actually spending money while on the train. Much in the same way that Vegas hotels are subsidized by the affiliated attractions as they know the average visitor will spend what he/she saves (and plenty more).

  7. Paul Druce
    Nov 28th, 2012 at 08:56
    #7

    So, much more expensive, longer, and far less flexible scheduling than airlines? This is a doomed project just like previous studies have indicated for such a train.

    joe Reply:

    The conventional project claims to be competing with automobile traffic, not airplane service.

    It’s not that much different than the Caltrain service to AT&T Park which is annoyingly popular with loud happy Giant’s fans that (gasp) laugh and drink on the way to the ball park.

    Amanda in the South Bay Reply:

    and if you’ve ever been a regular commuter (or just not attending the game) who unfortunately happens to be on Caltrain on a Giants game day, you know how obnoxious and odious it is to be stuffed with a bunch of loud drunks. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be on a train for 5 hours with a bunch of 20-30 something drunks. It seems like the idea of the party bus (like the kind a girl fell out of on Hwy 17 a few months ago) but on a much bigger scale.

    joe Reply:

    Lived in SF and rode Caltrain when they started the Giants service. I understand your point but think about the Vegas train. It’s not a Caltrain commuter or 17 commuter-party bus.

    It’s a train for Vegas “tourists” and marketed as one and dependent on that type of passenger. I’m okay with it. Not for me and I’m not the target demographic for the train of vegas either. And I think they can create a “dry” car for loud obnoxious kids and their parents.

    Matthew B. Reply:

    Paul,

    It’s their deal, no taxpayer money that I’m aware of. If they run it into the ground, so what? My guess, though, is that people take it. Not because it would be cheaper than a bus, but because they can say how they had an “epic” weekend to Vegas that started on the party train (think bachelor parties). I’m guessing I wouldn’t want to take that train (and I generally like trains), but that doesn’t in itself mean it wouldn’t make money.

    I think the thought of anyone willingly taking a train makes some of the commentators here grumpy. It seems that others think a limited volume service that’s not targeted at their demographic is inherently a bad idea. The real question is whether it makes money, and there seem to be a number of professionals who are willing to back it with their investment.

    wu ming Reply:

    it sure would be better to have the loud drunks driving to the ballpark.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    Yes, it’s competing with people who aren’t willing to spend the money to buy a plane ticket that is cheaper than the notional train ticket. That’s really not a good market idea.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    I think they could do quite well with a “reverse commute”. There are millions of LV visitors each year from overseas and from the eastern states that fly into LV. How about offering an excursion to Disneyland by train?

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Meh. Once you treat LV as the origin and LA as the destination, you no longer have all that special tourist traffic. It’s just another metro area of 1.7 million connecting to another metro area of 18 million. (Yeah, LA has Disneyland; so does Paris.) It’s a good but not amazing market for HSR, and a meh one for trains that run more slowly than the legacy trains the TGV replaced.

  8. Alan F
    Nov 28th, 2012 at 08:59
    #8

    Before people get too excited about the prospect of a two trains a week Fullerton to Vegas service, LVRE has a major funding hurdle to get over. According to the terms disclosed in this filing with the SEC (http://xml.10kwizard.com/filing_raw.php?repo=tenk&ipage=8572536), LVRE has to put $27.4 million in an escrow account to reimburse Union Pacific for track improvements. Then LVRE has to come up with an additional $29.2 million within 2 years for additional UP track improvements. That is a lot of upfront money for a 2 trains a week service. I suspect that if LVRE is serious about a Fullerton/LA to Vegas service, they will need to expand to a 7 day a week service to justify the outlay (unless LVRE could get public money from city of Las Vegas or NV or low interest government infrastructure loans to pay for the track upgrades).

    Peter Baldo Reply:

    If the feds are giving out low-interest loans for UP track upgrades, I’d rather see the money spent making the Sunset Limited a daily, and faster, train.

    Alan F Reply:

    $27.4 million is not going to go very far towards a daily service for the Sunset Limited given the length of the route. However, all Amtrak really has to do is to wait for UP to complete the double tracking from Southern CA to El Paso. At that point, UP can’t demand that Amtrak pay a reported ~$600 million for the double tracking so Amtrak can run a once a day LD train. I think Amtrak plans to revisit asking for a daily Sunset Limited after the current 2 year agreement, signed in February 2012, with UP expires. By then, the Colton Flyover should be close to completion or done and much of the UP route to El Paso will be double tracked.

    Whether $27 million would be enough to restore the track though Phoenix, don’t know.

    Nathanael Reply:

    UP’s ransom demand for $600 million is what prevented the Sunset Limited from going daily. After UP is double-tracked all the way to El Paso and Colton Flyover is done,… well, UP might STILL make the same ransom demand, but it will appear even LESS reasonable.

    Peter Reply:

    Huh, I guess the 5 day limit on comments has been deactivated?

    Reedman Reply:

    Perhaps also re-starting the Sunset Limited between New Orleans and Jacksonville.

    trentbridge Reply:

    Good work. And LVRE has to get an operating agreement from BNSF and Amtrak too for the Fullerton- Daggett portion of the journey. Having said that – would LVRE file the agreement and purchase passenger rail cars if they weren’t 90% sure of finding the money?

    Also, as you point out – it makes no sense to buy said equipment and have it sit idle for four days a week. Given that there’s an additional escrow sum within two years for additional track improvements,, the LVRE people must be planning to provide more frequent service – otherwise – why pay for more track improvements after the first set are completed?

    Alan F Reply:

    The equipment would sit around 5 days a week under the proposed X-Train schedule. One trainset departs Fullerton on Thursday, the second on Friday, both back to Fullerton on Sunday. If the trip takes 5 hours each way, that means each train set would be generating revenue around only 10 hours a week while sitting around the other 158 hours a week minus maintenance. Even if LVRE is buying used rolling stock and refurbishing it, the business economics of that much idle time strikes me as rather poor.

    A daily service or maybe 6 days a week with Tuesdays off for maintenance would provide a better revenue stream. From what I can tell, much of the LVRE data and planning comes from the 213 page 2007 Las Vegas to Los Angeles Rail Corridor Improvement Feasibility Study. A copy can be found at http://www.rtcsnv.com/mpo/plansstudies/Docs/la-vegas-RailStudy.pdf. A lot of material and info in that report. That report identifies Tuesday as the slowest travel day for LA – Vegas which is why it would be a logical down day if LVRE stays with only 2 trainsets.

  9. synonymouse
    Nov 28th, 2012 at 09:53
    #9

    What a bozo is this Antonovich ward boss; Kopp is an Einstein by comparison:

    http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-bullet-politics-20121127,0,994604.story

    Jerry should just forget the charade and appoint Antonovich Roundabout CEO.

    But I do like “moondoggle”.

    joe Reply:

    Moondoggle has a ring to it – like Seward’s Folly.

    You guys have a knack, a sixth sense, for branding that credits public figures with quite popular public projects and decisions.

    When your labels backfire, you blame “ward bosses” and other boogieman for people actually liking stuff that benefits them.

    So call HSR a moondoggle. He’ll love that legacy and will remembered as a very good Governor.

    synonymouse Reply:

    The Roundabout is a white elephant, just like BART. The difference is that BART, for all its proprietary stupidities, is an indispensable white elephant, primarily due to its punch-thru Transbay Tube. The CHSRA is hardly indispensable. It is not even a TEE, but a collection of regional commute routes connected by third-rate meandering mountain crossings, which, tho exorbitantly expensive to construct, will see very little traffic and are unsuitable for sharing with freight.

    VBobier Reply:

    Like what can You and whose Army do about the CHSRA? Absolutely nothing… Hang it up Syno, Your side lost…

    joe Reply:

    BART sucks except that it is indispensable.

    HSR has a meandering route connecting CV cities. But no one goes there anymore – it’s too crowded.

  10. trentbridge
    Nov 28th, 2012 at 10:52
    #10

    What would prevent Amtrak from re-starting the LA – Las Vegas Desert Wind service – if the LVRE train proves to be popular? Does LVRE get an exclusive?

    Jim Reply:

    The Desert Wind wasn’t an LA-LV train. It was an LA-Chicago train that passed through LV on the way to SLC where it joined with the Zephyr. Amtrak isn’t going to revive that.

    Alan F Reply:

    In order to run a LA to Las Vegas train, Amtrak would need operating subsidy support from a state or local government. Even if the train operated at a net profit after it started, Amtrak would probably be unable to start the service without state support because of the restrictions and requirements for proving a corridor service would not need a subsidy in the 2008 PRIIA act – if I understand it correctly.

    The Desert Wind was an LD train with a route of over 750 miles so it would be covered by the national operating subsidy, but it is clear that Amtrak has no plans to restore the Desert Wind unless Congress tells them to and provides funding to buy equipment and pay for track upgrades. Not likely to happen.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Amtrak is generally not interested in starting new Long Distance trains or restoring old ones, because they cost a lot of money for one-a-day and Congress keeps beating up on Amtrak’s budget.

    If Amtrak did consider doing reviving a long-distance train, the Desert Wind would be among the last of its choices (though perhaps ahead of the Pioneer). Even the North Coast Hiawatha would have more local support. If Amtrak does revive any one dormant long-distance route, I would expect it to be the Broadway Limited/Three Rivers from New York via Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to Chicago; this could be done with No New Stations. Increased frequencies over existing routes do better than new one-a-days.

  11. synonymouse
    Nov 28th, 2012 at 10:58
    #11

    Actually the contemporary equivalent of Seward’s Folly would be the Tejon Train.

    Or purchasing Baja California.

    Jo Reply:

    Speaking of Baja California; has anybody ever thought of a Baja Express, from Los Angeles, San Diego to Tijuana. Then easy bus connections to the resort areas further south? That border crossing is one of the busiest in the nation – always congested. The cascades go into Vancouver, Canada, why not Mexico. Take care of the customs issue, and perhaps it could be done.

    Joey Reply:

    Would this be any different than extending the Surfliner south a bit from San Diego? The main issue is probably that the tracks from San Diego to the border are used by the San Diego Trolley during the day.

    Matthew B. Reply:

    I think the border crossing is the main issue. It’s already an issue that has threatened Seattle-Vancouver, where the two countries don’t have a major illegal immigration issue. I think a train to the border (trolley) within walking distance of a reasonable chunk of Tijuana is as good as it’s going to get until the economic situation in Tijuana massively changes. I liked what I read, though, about adding a pedestrian border crossing between California and the Tijuana airport. I’d especially think it’s a good idea if there would eventually be a trolley extension to connect to it.

    Nathanael Reply:

    If it weren’t for the anti-Mexican bigotry in the US, we might see a more open border with Mexico. Currently Mexican immigration is running southward (i.e. former illegal immigrants are returning to Mexico, where there’s more economic opportunity). The border areas are a mess due mainly to drug trafficking, which is why Mexico is talking about legalizing drugs and getting rid of the problem.

    Tom McNamara Reply:

    Kill two birds with one stone:

    Buy all of Baja California and make the Colorado River America’s border with Mexico. You would get more oceanfront property with relatively small population. You could even break up California so that Southern California is returned to Baja California while the rest of the state stays intact.

  12. Useless
    Nov 28th, 2012 at 14:59
    #12
  13. blankslate
    Nov 28th, 2012 at 15:15
    #13

    Megabus coming (back) to California, offering Wi-fi bus from SF, Oakland, San Jose to LA. And yes, LA to Vegas. Buses start rolling on Dec. 12.
    http://www.insidebayarea.com/news/ci_22079613

    Alon Levy Reply:

    There are already a lot of sex workers in all of those cities who’ll satisfy your masochistic whims locally, albeit at higher price than riding Megabus.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    There are lots of people who will do it for free…

    Jon Reply:

    Quite. Anyone excited about Megabus service has clearly never traveled on one.

    Jo Reply:

    A hound is a hound is a hound. A high speed train, now that is something special.

  14. Tom McNamara
    Nov 28th, 2012 at 21:14
    #14

    So I know I will take a lot of heat for this but I think the real force behind the X Train is…Union Pacific.

    I mean consider that if Union Pacific’s real goal is to defeat high speed rail then the X Train is exactly the way to do it–the X Train creates a situation where XpressWest, CAHSR, and BNSF are all put at a disadvantage:

    a) BNSF has to share track over both the Southern Transcon and 91 bottleneck, whereas the UP gets no reduction in access except north of Barstow.

    b) X Train will undermine XpressWest’s viability given that as an existing service, the former will be able to demonstrate ridership and profitability while the latter is still on the drawing board. And because XpressWest will require a much larger capital investment than X Train, it raises the likelihood that nothing gets built. That would suit UP just fine since DX has to buttress UP’s right of way between Barstow and Las Vegas.

    c) Without DX as a viable project, that endangers CAHSR, the High Desert Corridor, and Metro’s gambit in Southern California. Once the concrete is laid, even if DX fails, CHSRA can buy it. If nothing is built, then CHSRA has to make the tougher political argument to serve a city that is not in California, despite the potential ridership. Notice that the X-Train conveniently does not serve LA County.

    d) Remember that one of the big investors in DX noted that many of their gambling reward club members live in the Inland Empire and would be more likely to take a train that was close by even if it was not faster.

    e) Note the uncanny resemblance of X Train’s route to that of SCAG’s proposed Maglev train that is now gathering dust.

    However, this isn’t to say I’m melancholy about the X Train’s supposedly imminent arrival. I think it will spur more interest in rail and that, especially as gas prices rise in 2013, it will be the best argument for high speed rail yet.

    joe Reply:

    Sorry Tom – (to quote SNL season 1) “Sometimes a banana is just a banana” and sometimes rail service to LA is just a way to make money with rail service to LA.

    You have a world full of examples to draw from. Show where existing, or new conventional service undermined HSR investments in Europe or Asia. So let’s find an example from the real world and not three dimensional chess-theory as if the US is novel and HSR – conventional competition somehow unknown.

    I see this conventional service with UP consent as validating the HSR concept and profit a green light for the HSR investors back by US loans.

    synonymouse Reply:

    I really don’t think the UP could see its way to enmire itself in the hugely byzantine politix of the Deserted Xprss or of the Roundabout for that matter. The chicanery, the corruption, the imbecility is simply too monumental to take on, even for their gang of lawyers and lobbyists.

    All they have to do is sit back in utter amusement and watch the moondoggle. play out. If there are some scraps to pick up at liquidation later on, so be it.

    If you are looking for machinations I’d suggest the Tejon Ranch Co. a much more credible candidate. And if any of the power players want to “fix” things the obvious go-to-guy is the Boss of Palmdale, Antonovich.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Maybe the Nancy Pelosi mindrays have gotten to them.

    synonymouse Reply:

    Maybe they can make use of “the Nancy Pelosi mindrays” to induce the PUC to require the Megabus SF to LA service to go via Tehachapi and Palmdale.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    What Tom is saying is that politically, upgraded legacy rail is the main alternative to HSR. (Not that there’s anything upgraded about the X Train, but let’s ignore that for now.) In both Japan and France, they needed to decide between four-tracking the legacy corridor to allow more capacity for slightly faster intercity trains and building a new two-track HSR line and keeping the legacy corridor at two tracks. In Germany they also needed to decide between legacy upgrades (for speed as well as capacity) and full-fat HSR, but mostly went with the former, reserving full-fat HSR for only a handful of cutoffs of slow or constrained lines. In the US the legacy vs. HSR debate is slowly playing out in various places, though people’s standards for what legacy rail is are a lot lower because they think Amtrak-plus counts as upgraded legacy.

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    people’s standards for what legacy rail is are a lot lower because they think Amtrak-plus counts as upgraded legacy.

    Americans’ standards for what a high speed rail “alternative” is are similarly (identically?) dismal.

    All the cost of US healthcare or the US military, all with all the transparency and achievement of the Department of Homeland Security, with exactly the same level of convenience and customer model as the US airline airline system. What could possibly go wrong?

    Nathanael Reply:

    Much, much cheaper than the US military (what’s it up to now, half a TRILLION a year?) Much, much cheaper than US healthcare. Much more transparent than the DHS, who cover up rapes, among other things.

    Do you never get tired of dishonest hyperbole?

    joe Reply:

    No.

    Clearly our reality is inferior to his unicorn world.

    It’s worth expecting more but not as an excuse to do nothing. And the GAO is still investigating HSR.

    Critics are free to submit concerns, issues, evidence and general observations on HSR, PB, Conflict of Interest, revolving door and etc to the GAO. Anonymously or not.

    I suggest they forward the SNCF power point slides.

    Nathanael Reply:

    In the UK they upgraded all the legacy lines AND are building new full-fat HSR, but then the UK has really massive population concentrations.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Like the Northeast or the Midwest?

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    If UP wanted to “help” the X train why would they demand so much money for track upgrades? I don’t think UP has a goal to defeat HSR, they will fight it if they think it interferes with their business but ignore it if it is built along freeway alignments. Oh, and what is “metro’s gambit” in southern California exactly?

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