Michael Barron sees them all the time on business trips: party people who start celebrating their arrival to Las Vegas before the plane touches down at McCarran International Airport.
“I finally started flying back to Las Vegas on Thursdays because I didn’t want to fly back with all the nuts on Friday,” Barron said.
But that hard-partying customer is exactly what Barron's X Train will rely on when it begins service between Southern California and Las Vegas the first week of January 2014.
“We’re trying to think of a better name than ‘party train,’” Barron said. “But I guess everybody kind of relates to that.”
Many Southern Californians and Las Vegans have longed for train service between Southern Nevada and Los Angeles since Amtrak’s Desert Wind shut down in 1997.
Most of the attention has focused on high-speed rail and XpressWest, formerly DesertXpress, in particular. Its developers propose building a track to carry trains that travel 150 mph between Las Vegas and Victorville, Calif., then connecting it with high-speed lines from downtown Los Angeles to Victorville.
But Barron’s X Train isn’t high speed. It’s a conventional train, albeit with some unconventional amenities.
The $100 million train will to carry up to 576 passengers per trip — almost the capacity of four fully loaded Boeing 737s — on rolling 5 1/2-hour parties.
The X Train's parent company is the publicly traded Las Vegas Railway Express. Developers are in the process of raising $100 million from investors to fund the project.
The company doesn’t have to build tracks; they’re already there. But developers did need permission to use them. A key factor in making their plan work was getting the track’s owners, the Union Pacific Railroad, to sign off on an agreement that would assure the X Train of consistent on-time arrivals.
The Desert Wind failed because freight trains had priority on the track between Daggett, Calif., and Las Vegas. The new deal with Union Pacific treats the X Train’s passengers like high-priority freight.
“It took three years from starting out with my first phone call to signatures on a contract," Barron said. “It was a little complicated because our trains travel four times faster than their freight trains. So they had to use capacity-study software to figure out how to fit our trains into their slots.”
X Train developers will need to make some capital improvements before the train can run, including laying double tracking so trains can pass each other and building facilities so that Union Pacific’s downtown Las Vegas employees can be relocated south of town.
The company also needs to build a train station. Passengers will arrive downtown. The northbound Union Pacific line runs just west of the Plaza, where Amtrak trains once stopped between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City.
Barron said his company will build a 50-foot strip along the back of the Plaza, and Union Pacific will install a switch and stub track along the length of the area to serve as a station platform.
The company already has a $400 million insurance liability policy and a train, which Barron said will be “refurbished and tricked out” early next year.
The train will have 16 cars, including two food service cars, two lounges and 12 first-class passenger compartments with 48 seats and a small bar. Cocktails will be served on board so it’s strictly an adults-only atmosphere.
The southern terminus of the train route will be the Fullerton Transportation Center in Orange County. That's a hub for Amtrak trains to San Diego, San Luis Obispo and Chicago, as well as for Metrolink, Southern California's rail system. It also is a bus depot for the Orange County Transportation Authority.
“We’re advertising to the guy who wants to start his Vegas vacation the minute he gets on a train in Fullerton,” Barron said.
The route runs through the heart of a Joshua tree forest in the 1.6-million-acre Mojave National Preserve. The area, administered by the National Park Service, also is home to a defunct railroad depot and ghost town in Kelso, Calif.
Initially, the X Train will offer up-and-back trips Thursdays, Fridays, Sundays and Mondays. Barron said 81 percent of the trips made on northbound Interstate 15 occur on Thursdays and Fridays. He figures he’d need to capture only a small percentage of those motorists to make his venture a success.
Schedules haven’t been finalized, but Barron envisions early afternoon departures from Fullerton to get tourists to the city by early evening.
Barron hopes to do test runs in November 2013, with an inaugural journey rolling into Las Vegas on New Year’s Eve.
The company already owns one X Train and could buy another one if business justifies it.
“If this goes according to Hoyle, we could be bringing 2 million people a year (to Las Vegas),” Barron said. “If that’s the case, that could be a major influx and could contribute to some greater thinking.”
Tickets will cost $100 each way and include food and drinks, but not exotic cocktails, Barron said. Those would cost extra.
There was some initial confusion about ticket prices after a video about the project said tickets would cost $50 one way. That’s the average price XpressWest is quoting for tickets on its planned high-speed train.
And as far as competition from XpressWest, forecast for late 2016, Barron believes there’s room for both projects because they’re so different.
“We know each other pretty well,” Barron said. “We’ve been to many speaking engagements together. My philosophy — and it seems to be echoed by their people — is that we’re really not competitors. Their service is a high-speed, short run between Victorville and Las Vegas. If they get that built, there will be people who want to ride that, and that’s fine. But there are always going to be people who want to ride this.”