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Bullet Train Dreams

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The idea of high-speed rail in Texas has been around at least since the nineties, and it has reared its head again. I am skeptical that rail could work in this state. If you thought that the Trans-Texas Corridor was controversial, wait until the French or the Germans start running trains through bucolic Central Texas at 220 miles per hour. It is a multi-billion dollar project, and the eminent domain issues will be extremely difficult for landowners.

The original idea was that travelers could get on the bullet train in downtown Houston, or Austin, or San Antonio, or Dallas, and ride to DFW Airport, and from there they could transfer their baggage to a flight on American Airlines. I wrote about my 1990 trip (funded by the French National Railways) in TEXAS MONTHLY (unfortunately, I could not find that story in our archives). At one point, I called American Airlines and asked if American had any interest in participating in high speed rail. The answer came back that Texas already had the equivalent of high-speed rail. “It is called Southwest Airlines,” I was told, and it works exactly like a train. People get on, people get off, and more people get on and off. Who needs a train when you have Southwest?

The big problem for high-speed rail in this state is the cost of grade separation; that is, the train tracks must be separated from local traffic by overpasses and underpasses. It is imperative to build these structures along the route so that farmers and ranchers can access their property. The cost of grade separation is enormous. The state certainly can’t pay for it, nor could the backers of the rail line. And so the dream died. As I recall, I calculated that the train would have to run full almost 24 hours a day just to break even.

That said, riding the bullet train was a fantastic experience. Whenever two trains passed each other, the air between them became compressed, and there was a noticeable buffeting. Otherwise, the ride was almost frictionless. When we came into the station at Paris, the engineer cut the power and we could coast the last 25 or so kilometers into the station. It was a great ride, but I don’t think it is ever going to be feasible for Texas.

(AP Image by Remy de la Mauviniere )

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  • Wilson James

    If the good ole boys could make a ton it could happen. A few of Perry’s cronies make enough noise or a pipeline/oil company were to ask for it things would move. Can’t see it happening though in light of the TTC.

  • Aaron Smith

    Burka is right – too many Texans are willing to fight to the death for their land rights. It won’t happen.

    • donuthin2

      Yeah, they should be a lot more benevolent.

    • Blue Dogs

      Perry’s legacy will also include Trans Texas Corridor for sure.

  • GOPers

    Aren’t the Spanish running toll roads through bucolic Central Texas at 85 miles per hour (SH130) — and still losing their shirts? I have no doubt that if some group hired the right Perry cronies (Toomey et al), and commissioned a report from Perryman or others spinning this as a win for the Texas economy and local governments, this could gain traction. In fact, they’d likely argue that the failure of TTC and financial contraints on TxDOT made this necessary. The only thing holding it back is economic modelling showing it to be profitable. But some fool thought SH 130 would be profitable . . .

    • AK26

      The problem is that SH 130 goes too far around (thereby making it useless for someone traveling within the Austin downtown area who wants to avoid 35) and doesn’t avoid enough traffic if you are a longer distance traveler. If it got you closer to Dallas and/or was easier to get on, more people would use it. Making sure the train stations being used in Houston, Dallas, and DFW are properly located and have sufficient parking are important to making it work, but I do not see the situation as analogous to 130 as you do.

      • txlakedude

        The problem, is that it’s a toll road. Raise the damn gas tax, $.05, and move us forward, not back to gravel roads of Perry ,and his Gang.

  • Texian Politico

    If a story does not exist in the archives does it make a sound?

  • Pat

    Yesterday I bought a weekday round-trip ticket on Southwest from Houston Hobby to Dallas Love for a business trip. It was $102. I’ve made this trip innumerable times. Door-to-door, or home-to-meeting, is about 2.5 hours. How can rail compete with that? Even if they can get the economics to work, I’m not sure how they replicate the incredible efficiency of the Southwest culture and their iron-grip on hourly Texas Triangle routes.

    • Sky Mirror

      I can take the Amtrack Texas Eagle from San Antonio to Ft Worth for $18.Granted it takes more than 2.5 hours, but I get a lot more leg room.

      • Pat

        Let me finish that sentence for you: “…and thats why nobody takes the train!”

        • WUSRPH

          Three minor points:
          First, a super train would make the journey in 2 to 4 hours.
          Second, it is not designed so much for those who now fly the Texas Triangle but for those who drive those routes. They could make the trip in less time and in much more comfortable situations.
          It is a nice dream, but I have my doubts that it can be done without a public subsidy—as is provided virtually every place one operates.

          • Tom Servo

            As someone who does some of those drives, I can point to another problem with the train idea – how do you get around town once you get to your destination? A centralized bullet train works if the city you are headed to has reliable and wide ranging public transportation, but what Texas City has that? And so if I drive someplace, say into Austin, I need my car so that I can visit the people in town that I have gone there to see. If I was on a train, I would have to add the cost of renting a car to each journey.

            I enjoy riding trains, I’ve done it on vacations, but they only “work” if you don’t have any schedule to keep and aren’t doing anything in particular.

          • Pat

            Oh man. Here comes Fort Worth, screaming “Mah, they’re leaving me out again!” Watch them get the whole project killed.

        • Sky Mirror

          Actually, the several times that I have made the trip the train was half to mostly full. I’m 6’6″ and it is a pleasure to ride without having to assume some sort of yoga position. If I am traveling on business, I will fly. But when I’m paying, it beats fighting I-35 traffic and costs less than half as much as a tank of gas.

      • allmaya

        Or, you could take the clean, prompt and fast MegaBus from San Antonio to Dallas for the stately round trip price of $10.

    • Michael Thomas

      If the flight time, gate to gate is fifty five minutes, and you factor in security and ground transportation, I don’t see how this can be true.

      • Pat

        You leave downtown Houston at 9am for a 10am flight out of Hobby. It lands at Love at 11am. Grab Uber and you’re in downtown Dallas by 11:20am. Do it all the time.

        • Michael Thomas

          No. Nobody leaves downtown @ 9 for a 10 flight.

          • Pat

            You’re just jealous of my TSA Precheck pass.

          • Michael Thomas


  • Paschal_Dad

    Does anyone remember that SWA fought like hell against the Texas TGV? I wonder why they fought so hard against it if the high speed rail couldn’t compete with their business model?

  • Unwound

    I took high speed rail from London to Paris 2 years ago on my honeymoon and it was the single easiest best travel experience I’ve ever had. Way easier than going through airport security, just throw your stuff on the train and go. If I remember right. the cost was the same or less than flying, but you cant really compare that to the way it would be in the US because of Euro govt subsidies.

    I wish there could be a way for it to happen throughout North America, but I just dont see a way that its possible.

  • John Johnson

    We’ve had this thread subject thrown at us a year or so ago. What has changed since then? The answer…nothing. This blog has been reduced to rehashing and reruns. If you’re tired, Paul, quit. Let someone else put their name on it and get the participation back where it once was. There are too many pertinent, interesting, current political subjects sitting there that are not being broached. Why?

    • Unwound

      If you aren’t happy here, I’m certain http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ would be delighted to have you….

      • John Johnson

        Thank you for pointing out that option to me. Others who used to be regular contributors seemed to have discovered other places to participate. I’m sure I can, too, if I decide that this blog is no longer worthy of attempts to get it back to a semblance of its former self.

      • come on in the waters fine, we won’t hold your head under too much….

    • Jed

      there is a new development, even if it isn’t actually mentioned in the piece. something about moving forward on plans for the dallas/houston train.
      i read about it at offthekuff.

      • John Johnson

        You read Mr. Thomas’ post. I was at a presentation by a rep from the North Texas Council of Governments which outlined the studies and decisions being made as covered by Mr. Thomas. There was a joint news release by the mayors is Dallas and Fort Worth this past week covering the topic. It was picked up by the Quorum Report. A few days later Burka dusts off an old thread and tosses it at us with none of the new info included. I call this being lazy or just not giving a damn.

  • Michael Thomas

    Mr Burka has not done his homework. He makes no mention of Texas Central Railway, but I assume that is what he refers to. This group of investors from Dallas and Houston are within striking distance of breaking ground on a line from Northwest Houston to Southeast Dallas. Japan Central Railway is providing the rolling stock and the infrastructure expertise along with near zero percent financing to build the line. The environmental impact study has been completed and they await FTA approval for the alignment. There are three proposed alignments but the most likely is along the un-used Teague Line which currently belongs to BNSF. The train will travel 205 mph with no stops between Houston and Dallas. Estimated trip time is ninety minutes point to point and no airport security. Southwest Airlines has rolled over on this. It is much less interested in this segment citing lack of profitablity and expansion into longer haul(via Love Field) and international markets(via Hobby). The rolling stock actually requires grade separation to operate and will most likely use existing right of way. Texas Central Railway claims to neither want nor ask for any public funds.

    • Jed

      yes, this is what i was thinking of.
      it does seem strange that the article comes out now but doesn’t mention this.
      maybe he uploaded the wrong rail piece.

    • Pat

      If they can beat Southwest on the speed and economics, then shoot, this idea will succeed and I’ll be happy to ride the train.

  • Jon

    The problem with the Dallas-Houston route for rail is that the one advantage it has over planes — the ability to stop, discharge and take on passengers at key mid-points — is negated by the fact that the most direct route avoids the city’s other major population centers, which for the most part are on the I-35 corridor.

    High-speed rail from D-FW to San Antonio at least has the option of serving customers in the Waco and Austin areas. The same line following the I-45 route has no major population centers (though I suppose you could run it via Waco and College Station and at least hit two areas with at least 100,000 people).

    Passenger rail has to have population density not just at either end of the route, but along the route at certain intervals, to have any hope of being viable. Amtrak wouldn’t run it’s New York to Washington route via Allentown and Harrisburg instead of Philadelphia and Baltimore, and any HSR project in Texas that cares only about serving D-FW and Houston is doomed to failure, since there’s nothing it does that the airlines can’t do faster or cheaper.

    • Michael Thomas

      There is no speed advantage to HSR if it makes numerous stops between population centers. Houston Metro is 6.2 million people and DFW is 6.6 million. That is where 99 percent of the passenger load will hail from. You don’t stop a high speed train to pick up three passengers in Corsicana or even ten passengers in Waco. According to this: http://ftp.dot.state.tx.us/pub/txdot-info/rail/high_speed/04_2011/dfw_hou/sec5_plan_doc.pdf There are 130 flights per day on the Houston to Dallas air corridor. Gate to gate most flights are between 55 minutes and one hour five minutes. There are 54000 daily drivers on the I45 corridor between Houston and Dallas. It’s a well trodden corridor.

      • Jon

        Amtrak’s HSR plan for the Northeast Corridor still calls for stopping in Baltimore and Philly on the route between Washington and New York. But it plans to bypass Wilmington, Del. (which I suppose means Vice President Biden can’t use it).

        That’s the main point — If you did HSR between D-FW and San Antonio, not stopping in Austin would be asinine. Waco might be more questionable, since it’s population falls into the same area as Wilmington, but the concern is still there that you have to decide how much time you’re willing to add onto any HSR run in exchange for making it usable by more people along the corridor it’s on?

        It’s doubtful you can ever get the population density high enough up to justify a stop in-between Dallas and Houston on an HSR corridor — only a I-35/Texas 6 routing might give you enough density in the Waco and Bryan-College Station markets. But if you plan to serve nobody but those living/working in Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, you have little or no advantage over Southwest flying between those same two markets, as far as expanding customer convenience goes.

        • Michael Thomas

          Except that Southwest, American and United all desire to reduce service between those two markets.

      • AK26

        I agree with you, at least initially. The best starter line is Houston to DFW. If that works and people do use it, HSR lines from Austin to Houston and Austin to Dallas would make sense. The traffic to get to Dallas from Austin is ridiculous, and the number of stop lights to get from Austin to Houston is at best aggravating and then compounded by traffic. There are several differences between this attempt and the previous one, as you pointed out. The growth in traffic congestion and the increasing push-back against TSA and airport regulations/security also make HSR more viable now that it was in the 90s.

  • Peaceofpi

    Monorail. An elevated track would solve most of the eminent domain issues, because a ranch wouldn’t have a track cutting it in two.

  • Droit et Avant

    Land rights?
    I still don’t understand Texans. When you travel in Texas roads in the country side and pay attention to the surroundings, there is nothing, nothing grows, just empty land. I wondered why are they holding this land for, they can’t afford to farm it, and if they do it they go broke just paying for water. The majority of the terrain in Texas is rough land, it will be perfect to build high speed train, high speed highways, then a trip to El Paso will be a breeze. At least if they sell the land they can get some money for it, and can move to a nice house in the city.