The Little Train that Couldn't
INSIDE VEGAS by Steve Miller
March 17, 2003

The German government has spent several decades along with billions of dollars developing and testing a superspeed train called the Transrapid. The magnetically levitated train was conceived by Westinghouse/AEG Germany and has traveled tens of thousands of miles safely at speeds of up to 350 miles per hour on an oval test track built over fields and through the forests of Bavaria. The diminutive train is designed to ride on a magnetic field just a half-inch above its elevated guideway being pulled along by magnets imbedded in the track ahead. Since there are no wheels with their inherent friction, the only obstacle to achieving even greater speeds is the aerodynamic drag of the wind on the streamlined fuselage.

In the late 1980s, a delegation of people representing the Las Vegas City Council, the Clark County Commission, and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority traveled to Germany at the expense of Westinghouse/AEG and the German Government to experience a ride on the Transrapid. I was among those privileged to be in the delegation.

Upon arriving at the test facility, I was amazed to see what appeared to be a rather worn looking little train barely sixty feet long sitting on a concrete guideway aiming toward a distant forest. Upon entering the vehicle, I was surprised to not find seat belts affixed to the rather tattered seats. It was obvious to me that this experimental train had seen many miles and a number of years of safe use as a test vehicle hauling thousands of passengers on a whirlwind circuit around its' test track at breakneck speed. I was completely enthralled with the Transrapid and could not wait to describe it to those back home.

After returning to Las Vegas, I was intent on supporting the legislation necessary to bring this wonderful invention to our desert. The Westinghouse/AEG engineers envisioned the Transrapid making hourly trips between Anaheim, California and downtown Las Vegas. Their enthusiasm was bolstered by the public relations exposure such a project would engender being that the train would service two of the most famous tourist's attractions in the world; Disneyland and Las Vegas.

What made the project even more appealing to me was the fact that the train could travel just as efficiently at low speeds within populated areas as it could travel at mach .5 out in the open desert. The train was completely compatible with travel between city centers as it would only travel at 30 to 40 miles per hour in congested areas such as our downtown, or downtown Anaheim.

The first obstacle we encountered when our delegation returned to Las Vegas was a surprising reaction from several Strip hotel executives. They were opposed to the fact that the train was intended to terminus in downtown Las Vegas and wanted the train to make its' one and only local stop at McCarran Airport.

This opposition met with a harsh reaction from the German designers of the train who intended it to serve city centers. They wanted the Transrapid to begin and end its' LA to Las Vegas trips behind the Plaza Hotel on Main Street where the existing Amtrak train station has been located for the past eighty years. The Germans scoffed at the idea of their train going to our airport instead of the city center. They angrily said "Airports are for airplanes, not trains!"

While hosting the Transrapid designers and company executives, I was becoming aware of their impatience with our Las Vegas brand of political influence. It was becoming obvious to them that the elected government officials and other local citizens who they provided a first class trip abroad were not the real leaders who were running this city!

The German delegation only wished to show off their technology, and to do so their train would have to be able to run nonstop from one downtown terminal to another. The ridiculous feud developing between the Strip hotel barons and the downtown casino owners was becoming obvious to the impatient German businessmen and their engineers.

Then, as always, the Strip interests did not want to share tourists with downtown Las Vegas and therefore decided to unabashedly strong-arm Westinghouse/AEG to concede to the airport terminal only. Their rule is that every Las Vegas vacation begin and end in Clark County, not the City of Las Vegas. (McCarran Airport is located outside the city limits.)

The downtown casino owners countered with a workable compromise.

They proposed that the Transrapid make an intermediate stop at the airport, then proceed west on Tropicana Ave. to the Union Pacific mainline. From there it would travel north to another terminal behind Caesar's Palace and the Mirage, stop for a few minutes, and then proceed into downtown.

I was quite impressed with the idea and was prepared to lobby the Germans on its' behalf. I believed that the train would then serve a triple purpose as a superspeed method of travel between California and Nevada, and then serve as an intracity transit service between the airport, Strip, and downtown while also being able to expose millions of short haul passengers to the slower, but still unique experience of riding on the technology of the new millennium. I was wrong.

There was no interest on the part of the leaders of the Strip casinos in having any possible convenient means of travel offered to tourists wanting to go from the Strip into downtown. Then and now the only way for a Strip based tourist to go downtown is either on a crowded public bus, or pay $25 for a round trip taxi ride.

In 1987, the Transrapid representatives continued to grow restless. Several of them expressed their utter dismay at the weakness being shown by those who they thought were elected to represent the best interests of the citizens of Las Vegas, not just the interests of moneyed Strip casinos.

After several months of watching us bicker among ourselves, the Germans lost interest and returned home. Our community may have permanently lost its' only opportunity to have the Transrapid run between Las Vegas and the West Coast.

Las Vegas has been left out in the cold with a gridlocked I-15 between Los Angeles and our desert city.

I was amazed at how quickly those who were provided the opportunity to experience the future of transportation back in the late 80's cowered to those self serving enough to sacrifice our city's technological future for a chance to keep their gambling clientele captive for a few hours longer.

It only took a brief ride forward into the future of transportation for me to realize how far backward our town really is.

Copyright © Steve Miller