A bright spot

We're Californians — of course we're turning all our freeways into super-fast trains!

A rendering of a pink and yellow Brightline high speed rail train zooming down the freeway median in the desert
Somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert

The dusty parcel of desert along the 15 freeway in Las Vegas was not the typical venue for an upbeat Earth Day event. Inside the billowing tent were yellow banners and yellow podiums and construction workers holding yellow signs that said "A brighter ride is here." Even the earth movers were yellow. At the end, as yellow confetti spiraled to the ground, a dozen elected officials drove yellow spikes into railroad ties using tiny yellow hammers like a group of preschoolers banging away at a kid-sized workbench. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said his twin toddlers still don't really understand what he does for work, but they definitely understood where he was going that morning: to build a fast new train.

In my own moment of childlike awe, I ended up watching the entire video of Monday's groundbreaking because it felt like I was witnessing an actual turning point in U.S. transportation history. Brightline West, an electric high-speed train, will take passengers from right there in Vegas to the California city of Rancho Cucamonga in about two hours — half the time it takes to drive, without factoring in any traffic. (And there's always traffic.) The tagline: "Go car-free, care-free."

If it feels like this train came out of nowhere because you've heard so much about another California high-speed rail project, you're forgiven for being a little confused. In 2008, California voters approved a first-of-its-kind bond measure for a publicly funded statewide high-speed rail system that would travel up to 220 mph on a brand-new, dedicated right-of-way. That project didn't break ground until 2015 and won't be ready for passengers until 2030 at least. But almost six years ago, Brightline, which had just launched a successful private rail network in Florida, took over this long-discussed Vegas-to-SoCal route. And they plan to have it up and running for the 2028 Summer Olympics — right in time for the tourists who live in countries that have had high-speed rail for decades to experience what Brightline is calling the "first true high-speed rail" in American history. (Bracing for their brutal reviews.)

Now, wait, you might be wondering: I've taken the Acela from New York to D.C. and it was really, really fast — doesn't the U.S. already have high-speed rail? Well, it all depends on your accepted definition of "high-speed," which generally means trains that go at least 155 mph on new, purpose-built tracks. But Amtrak considers its trains that go 125 mph or more on existing tracks to also be "high-speed," so the Acela qualifies under the Amtrak definition because it travels up to 150 mph. (New trains currently being tested on the Northeast Corridor will go about 10 mph faster.) In Brightline West, however, we have a project that meets the high-speed specifications twice over: new tracks being built, plus trains that reach 186 mph — and will get up to 200 mph in some stretches. So if Brightline West, in fact, beats the original California high-speed rail project to revenue service, it will technically be the first. And that proof-of-concept will sell the idea, as Secretary Pete told CNBC: “I’m convinced that the first time Americans actually experience American high-speed rail on U.S. soil, there’s going to be no going back and people are going to expect and demand it all across the country.”

Brightline West's groundbreaking also represents a substantial federal high-speed rail investment, with the U.S. Department of Transportation awarding $3 billion to the $12 billion project last year. (The department also gave $3 billion to the California high-speed rail project, and smaller amounts to high-speed rail projects being planned in Texas, the Southeast, and the Pacific Northwest.) Of course, that's a drop in the bucket compared to what they give cars. Transportation for America analysis showed that of the $1.2 trillion doled out by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, most has gone towards expanding and resurfacing roads, with only one-fifth going to public transit. The reason train tickets can be pricey in the U.S. — the Acela and Brightline can be more expensive than flying or driving — is the same problem: we underfund transit and subsidize the high societal costs of flying and driving. As Secretary Pete acknowledged in another interview, not much is going to change, transportation-wise, until we redirect the spigot of roadway money.

While it's nice for the feds to front us some cash, what's likely to get Brightline West completed in four years is the fact that it's not a public project. Brightline's Miami to West Palm Beach phase — the first new private train service in the country in a century — took less than four years to build. Having access to private financing is part of why it happened fast, but also because the route mainly used an existing right-of-way. (This has created other problems, namely, people being killed where the train makes at-grade crossings.) Brightline West using an existing highway median for high-speed rail — no grade crossings — is like a cheat code that lowers costs and speeds up the planning process. And it also starts to unspool a half-century of bad fossil-fuel infrastructure decisions. First we'll try a median, then we'll take a whole lane, right? We're Californians — of course we're turning all our freeways into super-fast trains!

For anyone annoyed to see Brightline brand this train as "to LA" when it's actually to Rancho Cucamonga, know one thing: the train was originally supposed to terminate in Victorville. By getting Brightline West to this side of the Cajon Pass, passengers can connect to Metrolink, our regional rail network. The train from LA's Union Station to the Rancho Cucamonga station takes 75 minutes — much faster than driving on a Friday afternoon — and Metrolink has been adding more service, speeding up schedules, and even building new stations. But look closely at this map. That little 52-mile gold line from Victorville to Palmdale is the High Desert Corridor — a freeway proposal that was canceled in favor of building more multimodal options — which would make an easy connection to the rest of the California high-speed rail system. I'll take the "to LA" as Brightline's aspirational agreement to work with California high-speed rail and get passengers a one-seat ride to Union Station via Metrolink — and maybe sooner than we think.

A Brightline West system map showing the train from Vegas to Rancho Cucamonga and connections to other trains
It's all coming together

There are 50 million trips between Vegas and the LA area each year, 85 percent of which are made by car. This project is aiming to convert 10 million of those trips from car to train. And while, generally, we should not put any transit stations in freeway medians — see: the Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange, decibel readings on the C line — a center-running yellow train streaking past traffic like a highlighter is probably Brightline West's most important feature. Anyone hitting the six-hour mark of a Vegas road trip while creeping past Primm is sold just by looking out the window. This train will always be faster than cars.

While the groundbreaking vibes were optimistic, the landscape beyond the ceremony revealed a montage of broken systems the earth movers at-the-ready were really meant to smash. SUVs careened through the sprawl in the distance. More than one speaker commented about the unseasonable April heat, a searing 91 degrees at noon. During a few points, the roar of airplanes landing at Harry Reid International Airport overwhelmed the remarks. The path forward was obvious. 🔥

🚧 Private developers carving the route into segments could be one way to get California's high speed rail project done faster and cheaper. Of course we should finish the thing, it will cost us more not to build it. One way to do it: stop widening freeways. Looking at you, Caltrans

🚄 My story about the new Acela trains for New York Times Kids isn't online, it was only in print (which is very rad) but you can take a peek at the spread on their Instagram

🎫 What would it look like if we wanted people to choose transit over driving? Germany offers a nationwide transit pass for 49 Euros per month. California when?

🛤️ Metrolink's legacy improvement plan for 2028, SCORE, is perhaps the most ambitious of all the Southern California agencies — more on that later. But in the meantime, enjoy my favorite Metrolink feature: $10 weekend passes — and kids ride free!

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