SAN FRANCISCO
07/30/2012 04:00 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2012

XpressWest High Speed Rail Line Would Extend California Bullet Train To Las Vegas

It's been difficult enough for California to build a bullet train between San Francisco and Los Angeles. But a Nevada-based group is looking create an extension off that long-in-the-works system that would stretch the Golden State's rail network all the way to Las Vegas.

While the comparatively higher-profile $68 billion California-only line is overseen by the state government's High Speed Rail Authority, the 200-mile Vegas line--recently rechristened XpressWest from DesertXpress--is the brainchild of a group of private investors led by casino developer Tony Marnell.

XpressWest would link up with the California system, tentatively slated for completion in 2029, in the city of Palmdale, just north of Los Angeles. Its backers hope to provide trips from L.A. to Vegas in about an hour and a half and for as cheap as $45 per ticket. Taking XpressWest from San Francisco would cost $140 and take about four hours.

"Because visitor trends and demographics clearly indicate the 'Las Vegas Experience' cannot start early enough, XpressWest will be more than just a mode of travel," reads a post on XpressWest's website. "It will extend the Las Vegas Experience through innovative concepts such as hotel check-in services, dinner and show reservations, and multiple entertainment options all on board the train."

If this all sounds like a recipe for a bachelorette party on rails, that's pretty much the plan. "Consider the train an extension of Las Vegas," XpressWest COO Andrew Mack told the San Jose Mercury News. "We definitely want to create that type of environment where...[passengers] can sit back and relax."

The plan has the strong, vocal support of powerful politicians like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), which is good news for a project looking to secure approval on an approximately $5 billion loan from the federal government later this summer.

If granted, this would be the largest loan of its type ever provided by the federal government for a rail project.

The Federal Railroad Administration estimates XpressWest between Palmdale and Las Vegas would create 80,000 new jobs--primarily in regions hit particularly hard by the collapse of the housing bubble. Only a small fraction of those jobs, however, would be permanent.

There's also a green argument for the train. Vegas Inc. reports:

Officials anticipate the train would divert 2 million car trips from congested Interstate 15 a year, reducing traffic by an estimated 25 percent. The all-electric operation of the train is expected to reduce emissions by 40 percent along the I-15 corridor and save the equivalent of 8.5 million gallons of gasoline.

The project's backers hope the line will prove a moneymaker and ferry upwards of 2.5 million people a year to Sin City and back. Although not everyone is convinced.

"When somebody comes and tells me I will build a system that pays for itself, I'm suspicious," Hasan Ikhrata, executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments told the Associated Press. "There is no high-speed rail system in the world that operates without subsidies."

If XpressWest gets its federal loan and then fails, the government would likely take over the system's operation.

The train's ultimate goal is to become the transit backbone for the entire American southwest, running from Los Angeles through Las Vegas and onward to Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Denver.

Recent weeks have brought a string of good news for California's beleaguered high speed rail project, which has seen opposition grow as costs have skyrocketed over the past decade.

Earlier this month, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill, narrowly approved by the state legislature, allowing the state to begin selling $4.5 billion in bonds to pay for the start of the train's construction.

Just last week, a group of budget hawks looking to shut down the project officially came up short in their attempt to get a measure blocking high-speed rail on the 2014 ballot.

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