Brightline, the pioneering private rail service based in Florida, has made no secret of its aspirations to expand, not only further into Florida towards Orlando and Tampa, but beyond the Sunshine State. Last week, the company made good on its promises and selected its next corridor. Its choice shocked rail observers: a line from Las Vegas to Southern California.
In one sense, this market is a perfect application of Brightline’s model. Much like the South Florida market, demand for travel between Greater Los Angeles and Las Vegas is constant and high. Currently, the trip requires a drive (or bus ride) along congested I-10 and I-15, or flying. Brightline also plans to bring its expertise in rail-oriented development to the Strip – an already compact entertainment center with existing transit – with its Las Vegas station planned to host a development likely of similar stature to its MiamiCentral development. And on the western end of the line, America’s second-largest metro generates no shortage of trips from southern Nevada.
Here’s the hitch: Brightline’s early success has come from using an existing railroad, owned by a subsidiary of its parent company, with the second phase, a greenfield extension to Orlando’s airport, coming as a later extension off an already strong corridor. The Vegas-to-LA-Basin line will require entirely new construction. And initially, the line will terminate in Victorville, CA – population 122,265, and 85 miles from L.A.’s Union Station. It won’t, at the initial stage, connect to existing rail, meaning most riders will have to drive to reach the train. Fundamental differences between the two corridors also present themselves. Inland California is sparsely populated in contrast to the Treasure Coast.
The idea of high-speed rail between Las Vegas and Los Angeles is not new. In fact, Brightline has entered this market by acquiring XpressWest, a company which has long proposed such a connection. A high-speed line was proposed during the 2009 efforts to finance new rail through the stimulus package, but did not proceed.
Nonetheless, it’d be foolish to dismiss this proposal out of hand. At the end of the day, the travel market is extremely strong, and Brightline has demonstrated success on its first line. The company has identified an appetite for privately financed and operated passenger rail, coupled with the tried and true approach of turning stations into destinations. We can expect more such markets to be identified by Brightline in the years to come.