The Reason Foundation recently published an evaluation of the proposed Victorville to Las Vegas high-speed rail line, The XpressWest High-Speed Rail Line from Victorville to Las Vegas: A Taxpayer Risk Analysis. The project is being proposed as a private-sector venture, but would require nearly all of its capital investment from a subsidized federal government loan. The findings included:
Solyndra-Style Loan Default Likely: Based upon an analysis of the market and project forecasts, we predicted that commercial revenues (primarily passenger fares) would be insufficient to pay the high-speed rail line’s construction, interest and operating costs and that a default on the federal loan was likely. This could lead to a taxpayer loss of up to $6.5 billion, more than 10 times the amount taxpayers lost in the Solyndra bankruptcy.
The Train Is Unlikely to Reduce Travel Times: The principal justification for the Victorville to Las Vegas high-speed rail line is saving time for people traveling from the Los Angeles area to Las Vegas, especially by car. Our analysis indicates that the train will result in little or no travel time savings. People who switch to the train for trips originating in the Los Angeles basin, Orange County and the Inland Empire directly to Las Vegas are likely to spend nearly 30 minutes longer, on average, getting to Las Vegas.
Analysis of Traffic Congestion
A review of the automobile traffic conditions experienced over two recent weekends, including the Labor Day weekend, indicates that, at the worst, traffic congestion between Victorville and Las Vegas is only modest.
We monitored traffic conditions and delays on the Fridays preceding each of the weekends and on the last day of the weekends, using Google Maps. Data was collected for two segments of the trip. The first segment was between Los Angeles and the Victorville station, where driving would be necessary because there would be no train. The second segment was between the Victorville station and Las Vegas, where the alternative of the high-speed train would be available. Data was obtained for the “top of each” hour. We also examined the overall average travel conditions for other days as reported by Google Maps.
Labor Day Weekend (August 31-September 3): On the Friday preceding Labor Day weekend, all of the traffic delays experienced by drivers to Las Vegas occurred between the Los Angeles area and the train station north of Victorville. Drivers experienced up to 61 minutes of delay between Los Angeles and the Victorville station location. There were four successive hours with delays of 30 minutes or more. However, no delays were experienced between the Victorville station location and Las Vegas. Thus, if the train had been in operation, drivers not switching to the train would have encountered no traffic delays by staying in their cars (Figure 1).
As would be expected, on Monday Sept. 3, 2012, the last day of the Labor Day weekend, there were traffic delays between Las Vegas and the Victorville station location. The maximum delay reached nearly one hour, and delays exceeded 30 minutes for approximately seven hours. In the worst case, a round trip driver would have avoided one hour of delay (30 minutes in each direction) by taking the train (Figure 2).
The Next Weekend (September 7-9):
On the following two-day weekend, there was less traffic congestion between Los Angeles and Victorville. Friday’s peak delay reached 49 minutes and exceeded 30 minutes for at least four hours. There were also delays of up to 10 minutes between the Victorville station location and Las Vegas. A driver switching to the train would have lost more time by exiting the freeway and getting to the station than he would by continuing on the I-15 to Las Vegas (Figure 3).
Fewer travel delays were also encountered on the Sunday return trip than on Labor Day weekend. The peak delay was 34 minutes, and 30 minute delays were exceeded for two hours (Figure 4).
Thus, round-trip, a driver switching to the train in Victorville would have avoided, at most, 44 minutes or an average of 22 minutes in each direction.
During the two recent weekends, from 87 percent to 100 percent of the traffic delay between Los Angeles and Las Vegas was encountered before reaching the Victorville station location. The train would do nothing to reduce this delay because the closest it reaches to Los Angeles is Victorville (Figure 5).
On both weekends, the maximum travel delay ranged from 49 minutes to 61 minutes between Los Angeles and the Victorville station location. Between the Victorville station and Las Vegas, the maximum travel delay varied from zero minutes to 10 minutes. Thus, in the portion of the trip where the train could provide an alternative, traffic delays were minimal or nonexistent (Figure 6).
Overall, approximately one-half of the round trip travel delay was between Los Angeles and Victorville over the Labor Day weekend. Approximately 56 percent of the travel delay during the following weekend was between Los Angeles and Victorville (Figure 7).
A review of traffic conditions on days other than the first and last days of weekends indicates that traffic congestion between Victorville and Las Vegas is relatively rare. This confirms the assessment of XpressWest project consultant Steer Davies Gleeve indicating that drivers do not normally experience congestion between Victorville and Las Vegas.
How Attractive Is the Train?
Reason’s Taxpayer Risk Assessment questions whether there is a substantial market for people to drive one third of the way to Las Vegas. Nowhere in the world do large numbers of people drive a similar distance, and then get on a train to finish the last two-thirds of the trip.
The traffic levels during recent weekends, and on other days, indicate that virtually all of the travel delays on the way to Las Vegas occur on the portion of the route over which the train will not operate. Using the train on the return trip could reduce travel times for a few hours each week. However, even if the trains were to run at “standing room only” during these hours (and on the peak hours on Friday), fares would not begin to pay the train’s expenses and repay its loan to federal taxpayers.
 These estimates include a “congestion cushion,” which is additional time that people add to their planned travel times when they have tickets to travel on a scheduled transportation service, such as a train or a plane. This congestion cushion is added to expected travel times.