In a move that could breathe more life into the stalled XpressWest plan to build a high speed rail line between Southern California and Las Vegas, British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is joining forces with the company that agreed to acquire the rail project.
Virgin Group and Brightline issued a press release Friday announcing the “strategic partnership,” which they say aims to “grow America’s first privately funded intercity passenger train in over 100 years.” The better-known mode of passenger rail is Amtrak, a federally chartered corporation that has the federal government as its majority stockholder.
“Tens of millions of Americans travel on the railways every day, and we have tried for over a decade to find an opportunity to provide them with that same excellent service experience,” Branson said in a statement. “Brightline is at the forefront of innovation in this market, and the ideal partner for Virgin to work with to alter perceptions and traveling habits across the United States.”
Virgin is making a minority investment in Brightline, which currently operates trains in Florida between Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach, and which will rename itself Virgin Trains USA.
Brightline recently announced plans to acquire XpressWest and said it wants to begin construction on the line between Nevada and California next year, pending the closure of the acquisition and gaining necessary federal approvals.
Virgin Group has been active in the rail sector in the United Kingdom, including investing in Virgin Trains, a high-speed passenger train that the company has run for 21 years.
XpressWest is a federally authorized project that envisions fully electric trains that travel along the I-15 corridor at over 150 mph. The trains would run between Victorville, California and Las Vegas.
Such a project has been discussed for decades and was championed by former Sen. Harry Reid, but has yet to take shape. Among the problems — concerns that people would not want to ride a train that only goes to Victorville, a high desert community that’s about 85 miles from downtown Los Angeles, and then require them to catch road transportation to their final destination.
The project also stalled in 2013 after the federal government stopped reviewing a request for a $5.5 billion loan. Officials were concerned that it would not be able to meet thresholds for American-made projects because high speed trains are largely produced outside the U.S., where most of high-speed rail systems are located.