Calif.’s high-speed rail linking LA, Vegas bucks trend, is on schedule

Calif.’s high-speed rail linking LA, Vegas bucks trend, is on schedule

Brightline West is expected to be operational by 2027.

Courtesy of Brightline

The trip between Las Vegas and Los Angeles can become a tumultuous trek. 

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A mockup for the Las Vegas station from Brightline West. 

A mockup for the Las Vegas station from Brightline West. 

Grimshaw Architects

“These projects are really tough,” Ben Porritt, a Brightline spokesperson, told SFGATE. “They’re huge — and they take a lot of time and patience.”

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A 218-mile rail line is inbound, and Brightline may reintroduce rail to a new generation of Californians. 

What is Brightline?

From Maryland, to Texas, to the Northwest, companies have touted bringing high-speed rail to the United States. But Brightline is the only private passenger rail company that’s (actually) operating. A New York City-based investment management firm, Fortress Investment Group, owns Brightline, and the company’s first project opened in Florida in 2018. In September of this year, the rail company opened its latest expansion, which connects two of the state’s biggest tourist hubs: Orlando and Miami. 

Brightline says its high-speed train can travel along I-15 in half the time it takes for a car. 

Brightline says its high-speed train can travel along I-15 in half the time it takes for a car. 

Courtesy of Brightline

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The company has seen significant growth. It counted 205,745 passengers in October 2023, a 101% increase over October 2022, according to Brightline’s monthly report. The company says that Floridians are choosing Brightline for daily commuting. And now that it has expanded the line to Orlando, they’re targeting tourists.

“We’re seeing about 65% of the people who are riding from Florida,” Porritt said. “And then you have about 25% that are more domestic travelers coming into the state of Florida. And then you have about a 10% block that’s international.”

The current state of rail

Unlike in European and Asian countries, passenger rail in the United States stalled following World War II. Yonah Freemark, the Urban Institute’s lead on the fair housing, land use and transportation practice area, told CNN that the primary reason for passenger trains’ decline in popularity was that the nation diverted its attention to a then-newer, flashier form of transportation: cars. Amtrak, the tried-and-true government-owned entity, operates rail throughout the country, including Metrolink, which provides commuter rail for much of Southern California. Amtrak released its first train line for high-speed rail in 2000 to connect Washington, D.C., and Boston. Until Brightline launched in Florida, it was the only high speed line in the US.

“Amtrak’s Acela service on the Northeast Corridor between Washington, New York and Boston is the fastest train in North America, with a top speed of 150 mph (which will soon increase to 160 mph),” a spokesperson for Amtrak told SFGATE over email. “We’re encouraged by all the interest and investment in expanding modern passenger rail around the United States. We look forward to welcoming Brightline West and California High Speed Rail to the club!”

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FILE: An Acela Express train sits parked at South Station in Boston, Mass.

FILE: An Acela Express train sits parked at South Station in Boston, Mass.

Darren McCollester/Getty Images

What is Brightline West?

Brightline West is the company’s latest project, which it says will take 11 million one-way passengers off I-15 each year along the existing routes already favored by travelers. 

The line won’t start in Los Angeles, however. Instead, it will use the San Bernardino Metrolink line, which connects the Inland Empire to Los Angeles, and begin in Rancho Cucamonga. From Union Station to Rancho Cucamonga, the Metrolink line takes a little under an hour and a half.

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A rendering of the Rancho Cucamonga station

A rendering of the Rancho Cucamonga station

Courtesy of Brightline

“We knew we had to get it closer to Los Angeles,” Porritt said. “So we’ve spent the last three-plus years advancing the project to Rancho Cucamonga, which gets us much closer to LA and also puts us in a position to share a station with California Metrolink so that our guests and travelers can get it all in Southern California, including downtown LA Union Station.”

After passengers reach the Brightline station in Rancho Cucamonga, they’ll take off on a bullet train traveling 186 mph. The line includes short stops in Hesperia and Victor Valley before the final stop in Las Vegas. Compared to driving, the train ride will cut travel time in half, Brightline says on its website.

“We want to build within existing transportation. … What we’re doing between Vegas and Rancho is building the system right down the middle of the I-15 highway. And the benefit there is you know it’s already environmentally impacted,” Porritt said. “It gives new life and value to the highway system that’s been there. It takes people out of their cars. And it just happens to be one of the most dangerous stretches of highway in the country. And so it’s safe, and green.”

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Brightline promises the Vegas-bound ride will provide a “car-free, care-free travel experience from start to finish.” Standard seating will have the same amount of space as a seat on a first-class flight, with free Wi-Fi, plenty of storage, and food and drinks available for purchase. The company also says it will have a premium option with “added amenities to take care of guests’ every need.”

The all-electric railway also promises environmental benefits by removing 3 million cars and 400,000 tons of carbon dioxide yearly — with plans to be emission-free by 2045. To protect wildlife like bighorn sheep, Brightline also worked with Caltrans and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife on plans to build three wildlife overcrossings across I-15.

Brightline plans to utilize a Los Angeles Metrolink line by having its first station in Rancho Cucamonga.

Brightline plans to utilize a Los Angeles Metrolink line by having its first station in Rancho Cucamonga.

Courtesy of Brightline

“After nearly 20 years of working on this issue at the Nevada Department of Transportation, I am excited about the prospect of Brightline West building a high-speed rail line between Las Vegas and Southern California, serving as a critical part of an all-of-the-above solution to improve travel times and safety on this highly traveled corridor,” Tracy Larkin Thomason, the director of the NDOT, told SFGATE in a statement.

While Brightline seems to be one step ahead for rail travel in the U.S., it also has the most railway deaths of any train in the United States.

“Brightline averages about one death for every 35,000 miles (56,000 kilometers) its trains travel, three times worse than the next mid-size or major railroad,” the Associated Press reported. 

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The news outlet examined police reports and found that the people killed were most often people attempting suicide, drivers trying to beat the trains by driving around barriers or ignoring flashing lights, and pedestrians who were intoxicated or dealing with mental illness.

“None of the incidents that we’ve seen in the state of Florida had been the result of operations or the trains,” Porritt said. “It’s actually been motorists or individuals who have circumvented the safety systems designed to protect them.”

The company has launched several initiatives to prevent more deaths from happening. It’s worked with law enforcement to more heavily enforce citations when people break the law, including police presence and red light cameras, according to documentation Porritt shared with SFGATE.

It’s also invested in several community education-based programs, including PSAs, safety materials and crisis hotlines. It’s also focused on gaining more funding and approval from the Florida Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration to install more fencing and barriers.

Brightline West timeline

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Brightline West has been in the works since 2019, and the cost is estimated to be $8 billion, with some of its funding coming from government grants

The project accelerated forward in 2018 when Brightline acquired a development company called XpressWest. The high-speed passenger rail project had previously secured the rights to develop a corridor connecting Southern California and Las Vegas, and was already federally approved.

An overhead rendering of the Las Vegas station for Brightline West.

An overhead rendering of the Las Vegas station for Brightline West.

Grimshaw Architects

“The value of that acquisition was that they had received a record of decisions on environmental permitting from Las Vegas to Victorville, California,” Porritt said. “And so that saves a significant amount of time.”

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“Similar to Brightline’s efforts with initiating passenger rail service in Florida, Brightline West will undergo a rigorous regulatory review process to ensure compliance with FRA regulations and will need to receive approval prior to commencing revenue service,” the Federal Railroad Administration told SFGATE in a statement. For the past three years, Brightline has secured funding and a successful agreement with the High-Speed Rail Labor Coalition, composed of 13 rail unions representing more than 160,000 freight, regional, commuter and passenger railroad workers.

“It put us in a position where we are ready to break ground,” Porritt said. “We have secured 100% of our station lands and rights of way. We have cleared all of our environmental permitting for both phases for what was originally there with Victorville and then extending it. And then we have put in place agreements with building trades and labor unions to not only build the system, but operate and maintain it once we are operational.”

The project is waiting to hear back from the FRA about a $3.75 billion grant, the Nevada Department of Transportation told SFGATE. 

Brightline hopes to break ground before the end of 2023. If the project remains on schedule, it will have ridership by the end of 2027.

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