The traffic jams happen like clockwork, clogging Interstate 15 on Sundays when weary travelers leave Las Vegas and head back to California. And in northern Nevada, the winter months and associated snowstorms can result in sudden closures of Interstate 80 between Reno and Sacramento.
These situations have long prompted calls for more passenger rail services to connect the two states, but so far that conversation has not materialized.
Currently, only one active Amtrak line runs through Nevada, connecting Sacramento to Reno, which then continues to Winnemucca, Elko, and finally Salt Lake City. Las Vegas has no rail passenger service. But a new group is trying to switch rails statewide, and state leaders are also exploring options.
The Nevada Rail Coalition — an advocacy group made up of railroad unions, environmental groups and community organizations — was formed earlier this year. The coalition is unique compared to other such groups in that it is pushing for both more passenger and freight trains in hopes of capitalizing on the recent passage of the $1.2 trillion federal Infrastructure Spending Act.
“We want to strike when the iron is hot,” said Anne Macquarie, Nevada Rail Coalition co-chair and Sierra Club member. “Nationwide, [the bill provides] $66 billion in guaranteed rail funding over five years and $42 billion of that will flow through the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in the form of competitive grants. So we saw this come down the tube and we thought it was an absolutely unprecedented opportunity.”
Coalition members plan to reach out to world leaders and encourage them to apply for these competitive grants, while engaging in outreach and education that could help build support for expanded rail travel.
Last year, Nevada joined the Southwest Supply Chain Coalition, a group of states including California, Arizona and Utah looking to build better interstate supply chain infrastructure. Officials at the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) announced in August that they were working with OnTrackNorthAmerica, a nonprofit transportation policy group, to form the coalition with the goal of connecting markets and cutting costs.
The Nevada Rail Coalition, meanwhile, has proposed rail projects it would like to see launched. They align with a railroad plan released by the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) last year.
Kris Sanchez, Associate Director of GOED, helped create NDOT’s railway plan. He said the group wanted to make sure it wasn’t just a report sitting on a shelf with no action.
“We started asking a lot of questions,” he said. “So what if we had that [agriculture] Industry starting to transport their goods by rail? What if the mining industry started doing this? …And what you end up with is the ability to aggregate, and that’s essential for the rail to work.”
Ecological and economic advantages
Sanchez said the bureau is currently primarily focused on rail freight, but is aware of the need to carry more passenger transportation across the state, between western states and within cities.
Among the projects the Nevada Rail Coalition hopes to advance is the Capitol Corridor, a passenger rail line that connects the Bay Area and extends to Auburn, less than 100 miles west of Reno. The coalition would like to see this route extended to Reno.
“It makes a lot of sense,” said Ron Kaminkow, co-chair of the Nevada Rail Coalition and secretary general of the Railroad Workers United Union. “Donner Pass has been closed on many occasions throughout the winter… [but] The train can continue. And here’s an example where it would be beneficial for both cargo and passengers.”
But Kaminkow said infrastructure investments were needed to expand the Capitol Corridor for more passenger rail service. There are railway lines in the area, but they are not all interconnected and the size and range of tracks is limited.
Kaminkow and Macquarie said the coalition is also pushing for more freight trains, which would mean fewer trucks on the freeways. This could help reduce CO2 emissions as train routes generally have a lower carbon footprint than cars and trucks.
“If we invest [in] Infrastructure like roads, it’s not really going to make traffic less,” said Sarah Park, the Las Vegas hub coordinator for the Sunrise movement, a progressive youth-led advocacy group. “What we need to do instead is [a] Shift to more public transport that would actually reduce traffic flow and help our environment by reducing carbon emissions.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), transportation emissions accounted for 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States in 2020, the largest of any economic sector. In Nevada, Gov. Steve Sisolak signed legislation into law in 2019 setting targets for reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030.
However, the law does not specifically mention the rail. Macquarie believes the omission of the train from the measure is a mistake as walking, cycling and trains can be more environmentally friendly modes of transport.
From a logistical perspective, Sanchez sees a need for rail, especially freight trains, given the dramatic growth in shipping fueled by the e-commerce sector.
“We had 10 years of growth in [the second quarter] of 2020 in e-commerce in just one quarter. So that means supply chains need to adapt,” he said.
But the cost of these projects can be a barrier. Tina Quigley, President and CEO of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, spent a brief stint at Brightline (formerly Virgin Rail), a private rail company seeking to connect Southern California and Las Vegas with a high-speed rail line.
Once built, it would be the first passenger rail project in Las Vegas, aside from the four-mile Las Vegas Monorail that runs along the Strip. Quigley said government partnerships with private railroad companies are key to bringing them to life.
“The level of investment in infrastructure is a serious barrier to these projects,” Quigley said. “And the fact that there wasn’t a lot of federal funding for these … seriously big projects — that makes it even more difficult.”
economies of scale
Union Pacific is the main private freight provider in Nevada, and Sanchez said it has been difficult to connect Nevada’s smaller communities with the company. Small rural communities don’t offer as much as the larger rail services that the company typically operates. Sanchez wants to position the state as an entire ecosystem that rail companies could tap into for growth.
“When we go [Union Pacific] with an entire state proposal made up of thousands of containers instead of maybe five containers — well, that’s going to draw attention,” Sanchez said. “One of the reasons we’re focusing on freight is because the profits are there. If we can aggregate the goods shipped, that makes sense. bottom line, [it] improves the operation of our mining industry, for example.”
Kaminkow and Macquarie both pointed to another problem complicating Nevada’s quest for more rail travel: The Silver State has a smaller population than many East Coast states, where much of the infrastructure money goes. California has ramped up its railroad efforts in recent years, but Nevada does not have a population accustomed to the railroad.
“I think we need to get more involved as a state nationally and look at what’s going on in the region and in California on rail and take a longer-term approach,” Sanchez said.
Historically, Nevada has had three main railroad lines — two in the north and one in the south, Kaminkow said. He also explained that rail passenger transport is not as widespread in the United States as it is in Europe or Asia because it is not as profitable. Additionally, in other parts of the world, railroads are subsidized by their governments and are more centralized, unlike in the US where each state has a lot of say over the railroads within its borders.
“As a country we have deprioritized rail over time and passenger rail is the best example of what that means. We’ve seen it in cargo, too,” Sanchez said. “In the state of Nevada, there is a thousand kilometers less track and usage than there was a hundred years ago.”
Regional units also need to work together, he noted. Macquarie said just going from Reno to Emeryville, Calif., meant passing the jurisdiction of four regional transportation agencies.
The Nevada Rail Coalition aims to get these fragmented agencies to join forces on regional projects such as: B. the expansion of rail traffic through the Capitol Corridor and the connection of Utah, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Providing rail service between Reno and Las Vegas would be a longer-term initiative, Kaminkow said.
Sanchez said one project that could get off the ground quickly is the development of the rail systems in Ely.
“The Northern Nevada Railway has approximately 120 miles of track and [it’s] almost ready to go but for about a mile of the track that was excavated years ago,” he said. “We’re not talking millions and millions of dollars to get this ride up and running. We’re talking about $5 million to $8 million here.”
Because Sanchez is working to expand Nevada’s rail network, he says the timing is optimal for economic reasons.
“It has to do with what I would say [is] the … changing behavior of the consumer,” he said.