Faster than a speeding bullet (train)
Fri August 17, 2012 9:49 am

I was very interested to see the story that former Harris County judge Robert Eckels is leading a group that wants to bring a bullet train to Texas, backed by Japanese interests. There was a previous effort to bring a bullet train to Texas in 1993. It didn’t come to fruition. The major obstacle to a bullet train is the cost of grade separation. Every time a road crosses the tracks, an overpass is required. The train travels so fast (205 miles per hour) that motorists who attempt to cross the tracks at grade level would be in mortal danger. The train is there and gone in three seconds. So grade separation along the entire route is imperative.

Back in 1993, the idea for the bullet train was that it would serve as a shuttle for American Airlines. Passengers would board in Houston or San Antonio or Austin to get to DFW. They would check their luggage at the point of origin and pick it up at their destination airport. I called American Airlines to see about the feasibility of this plan and was told by a spokeswoman, “Texas doesn’t need a train. It already has one. It’s called Southwest Airlines.” Indeed, Southwest does operate like a train. Passengers get on, they get off, new passengers get on, and every seat is filled.

The bullet train is a distant cousin of the late, unlamented, Trans-Texas corridor. The 1200-foot right-of-way for the Corridor was originally intended to service power lines, pipelines, and high-speed rail. If you thought the Trans-Texas corridor was an intrusion on property rights and raised the spectre of eminent domain battles along the entire route, imagine the fallout from high-speed rail as the train zips through the bucolic pastures of rural Texas. It makes the Keystone pipeline look like a Tinkertoy project.

The original bullet train idea failed because its backers couldn’t get the financing. They were counting on some assistance from the state, but the Legislature and the Texas High-Speed Rail Authority balked. (No surprise there.) The cost of grade separation along the entire right-of-way required $6 billion in bonds, a number that would be considerably higher today. I calculated at the time that trains would have to run at 96 percent of capacity, running virtually around the clock, to pay off the debt in the number of years allotted.

I went to France in 1993 with the lobby team that was seeking to get the franchise for the bullet train. (SNCF, the French national railway, paid for the trip, not the lobbyists.) Here is the first part of the story I wrote:

Texas Monthly

The little engine that might

Article from: Texas Monthly | April 1, 1993 | Burka, Paul | Copyright

I am living the dream. The bullet train is streaking southbound through the French countryside at 168 miles per hour. It is a misty January morning, and even though we are north of Montreal by latitude, the pastures between Paris and Lyon are as verdant as the Brazos River bottoms in May. I have no sense of traveling at a high velocity–until a jolt of disturbed air portends the coming of a northbound train. The blur is past us in the blink of an eye. Otherwise, we glide along the welded rails without a single lurch, vibration, or clickety-clack. There is ample time to take in the pastoral landscape as it slips by–the placid brook beyond the tracks, spanned here and there by wooden footbridges; the herd of sheep that takes no notice of our intrusion; the steeples on distant hills that are as prominent in rural France as water towers are in rural Texas; the vineyards at Macon, the fog over the river Saone, the medieval abbey at Cluny.

It is so civilized. In front of me, on a table that separates two rows of facing seats, is a plate stacked high with croissants. Another plate has packages of fromage–Montrachet, Gouda, Beaufort, Camembert, and Brie. A disposable coffee dripper is filling my cup. I lean back and extend my legs with no worry of disturbing the person across from me. Is it too early, I wonder, for some vin blanc?

The dream is that the bullet train can be transplanted to Texas, right down to the croissants. By the year 2000, if everything goes according to plan, we will be riding French TGV trains–the initials stand for train a grande vitesse, or “train of great speed”–between Dallas and Houston, with a Dallas-San Antonio leg soon to follow and perhaps a San Antonio-Houston link in the future. The thought is irresistible. No more cramped middle seats on Boeing 737′s, no more long waits in check-in lines, no more pushing and shoving at the gate to be first in your boarding group, no more seat belts, no more peanuts, no more worrying whether Hobby will be fogged in, no more air turbulence, no more banal messages from pilots that you can’t hear anyway because of the engine noise.

But the bullet train has never gotten on the fast track in Texas. Texas TGV, the company that beat out a German-backed rival for the Texas franchise in 1991, is under constant attack: for overstating its ridership projections, for understating its costs, for seeking public subsidies after promising it would not, for missing a deadline to raise $167 million in equity, and for failing to address the fears of Texans along the proposed routes that the fenced railroad right-of-way would amount to a Berlin Wall through rural Texas. In towns like Seguin, Franklin, and Westphalia, opponents of the bullet train have banded together to form DERAIL (Demanding Ethics, Responsibility, and Accountability in Legislation). They are backing a proposal to dismantle the Texas High-Speed Rail Authority and revoke Texas TGV’s franchise.

[end of excerpt]

* * * *

The biggest obstacle to a bullet train in Texas will be the opposition of rural landowners. (The same was true in France.) Farmers and ranchers will have to drive to a place where they can cross the tracks. They will need assurances that their livestock is safe. They will require access to pastures on the other side of the rails. Who is going to pay for that? To these questions one possible response is that it works in France. But Texas landowners are likely to be more outspoken than French landowners. One factor in the train’s favor is that it does not disturb livestock. The technology of the wheels and rails is such (or, at least it was the case in 1993) that the ride is silent and almost frictionless. We were told that the engineer could cut the power 25 kilometers from the station and coast the rest of the way into the station.

Aside from landowners, the biggest source of opposition to the train would likely be Southwest Airlines. Southwest lobbied hard against the bullet train back in the nineties. And by the way, Tx-DoT was no fan of the bullet train either. Transportation money spent on rails is money not spent on roads.

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