Dreamstar Lines Inc., headquartered in Newport Beach, California, is already well down the track toward setting up regular overnight rail service between Los Angeles and San Francisco. An official said the company hopes to have an entirely privately funded service in operation by early 2025.
But before that’s done, the company already has started seriously studying regular service between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, with a major stop in Las Vegas. This line could be ready a few years after the California line begins.
The company is trying to secure the rights to use existing tracks that currently are little used, thus avoiding congested freight lines. Dreamstar intends to emphasize sleeper cars, with ticket choices running from a basic roomette to a first-class family suite. For shorter routes, “spacious parlor seats” may be available, an official said. Trains will have either a full-fledged dining car or a lounge car with snacks, depending on the duration of the trip.
To be clear, the company is not proposing a high-speed or “bullet” train. That would require an investment that probably would make a private venture unprofitable. This train would take about eight hours or so to get from the Wasatch Front to Las Vegas.
Last May, I wrote about the Utah Transit Authority’s plans to study a line to Las Vegas.
The most important question, then and today, is whether anyone would ride it. Would you take a train when you could drive safely and within the posted speed limits much faster?
A Dreamstar source said if the company was talking only about a line from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas, the idea would “barely pencil” as profitable. But the company sees three markets involved in the proposal: Salt Lake to Vegas, Vegas to Los Angeles and Salt Lake to Los Angeles.
The aviation website oag.com lists L.A. to Vegas as the second busiest air travel route in the United States, generating almost 300,000 airline seats last month. Dreamstar officials believe they would need only a small share of this market to be profitable.
A company official said the goal is to keep prices to a level equal to a discount airfare and a night in a hotel (which would be spent on the train, instead). The goal for a single-accommodation roomette from Salt Lake to Vegas would be about $300 or less. The ideal trip would be a midnight journey from Vegas into Utah.
“The advantage is, if you’re leaving Las Vegas at midnight after a full day there, you can sleep and arrive back home in the morning,” Dreamstar president and CEO Jake Vollebregt said. “You obviously can’t sleep and drive.”
To be clear, this proposal has nothing to do with that earlier idea I wrote about after talking to UTA officials. Utah Department of Transportation spokesman John Gleason told me he’s not aware of Dreamstar or its plans.
A company official said Dreamstar would be happy to partner with Utah’s efforts. Certainly, there isn’t room for two competing lines vying for limited ridership.
But would even a single rail line to Vegas and L.A. work, barely a couple of generations after air travel shut down an impressive web of rail lines from coast to coast? Is an air-traveling public so weary of early check-ins, long TSA lines and cramped seats that enough of them would opt instead for the leisure of a train?
Vollebregt thinks so.
“Our value proposition is if you’re going up to San Francisco (from L.A.) for a morning appointment, your options are to get up at a ridiculously early hour or go up the night before and get a hotel,” he said. “This adds cost and difficulties. If we can stay under airfare plus hotel, we can be viable.”
I don’t know, but I do know I would rather have someone try to find out with their own money than with the money I’m forced to pay through taxes.
A similar private company, called Brightline, already operates a train service in Florida.
Dreamstar believes rail service can compete with airlines only on short routes — 400 to 700 miles. Anything longer than that and airplanes have a commanding advantage.
If it works, don’t expect the company to be satisfied with a line from Salt Lake City to L.A. Company leaders already are starting to look at lines to Boise and Denver.
An official called these “uncontested layups” for rail service. For the rest of us, it could be fun finding out if these ideas will score or clank off the rim.