The Texas Eagle, an Amtrak passenger train, made its final run from Dallas to Houston on September 10, 1995. The trip was scheduled to take a little more than six hours, but it dragged on for nine, as signal problems and freight traffic forced delays along the 265-mile route. No one on board, many there to take part in transportation history, seemed to mind: “I’m sorry I never rode it before,” one woman told the Associated Press. But Amtrak was shedding unprofitable lines across the country, and so the service was discontinued.

Now, it seems, the Texas Department of Transportation wants to bring it back. On Friday, the Federal Railroad Administration awarded $2.5 million to fund five studies of up to $500,000 each to explore passenger rail service in Texas, including a TxDOT project to restore a Dallas-Houston route on the same Union Pacific tracks that once carried the Texas Eagle, as well as an Amtrak partnership to resurrect a controversial high-speed rail project that stalled out in 2022.

The money comes from the Federal Railroad Administration’s new Corridor Identification and Development Program, which was enabled by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in 2021. The inaugural round, announced Friday, funded 69 studies, an attempt to build a pipeline of intercity rail projects in almost every state. It’s unlikely all of them will get built. “Half a million to study something is a pittance. That’s hardly a down payment,” said David Peter Alan, a writer for Railway Age and longtime transit advocate.

TxDOT applied for three passenger rail studies that would connect the so-called Texas Triangle, encompassing Austin, Dallas–Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio. Two of the three corridors were funded, one to restore service between Dallas and Houston and another to expand service between Houston and San Antonio along an existing Amtrak line.

This area contains two thirds of the state’s population and accounts for nearly 90 percent of the state’s growth over the past decade. A TxDOT spokesperson declined an interview with Texas Monthly. In its grant application, the agency acknowledged that Texas highways are among the most congested in the nation and that adding passenger rail would alleviate road congestion, improve safety, and reduce emissions. The state leads the nation in traffic deaths and carbon emissions on its roads.

Although the funding represents a commitment only to study the corridors, the fact that TxDOT applied is significant, said Peter LeCody, the president of Texas Rail Advocates, a nonprofit dedicated to developing rail service across the state. “Passenger rail really has not been in TxDOT’s vocabulary at all,” he said. The agency’s rail division was established in 2009 and received only $21 million in TxDOT’s $37 billion 2024–2025 budget. “We’re pleased to see that TxDOT is making these steps in the right direction.”

But there is no state money designated by the legislature for passenger rail, LeCody said. To secure federal funding for construction, TxDOT would have to commit to paying for 20 percent of any rail project, even as state law requires roughly 97 percent of the agency’s funding be spent on roads. TxDOT cited the Texas Mobility Fund—which has a balance of $460 million—and “state general revenue” as funding sources for the Dallas-Houston and San Antonio–Houston rail projects. “We have asked TxDOT in the past, in their legislative appropriation request, to put in funding for passenger rail projects. They’ve shied away from that,” LeCody said.

TxDOT estimated the cost of establishing the Dallas-Houston line at $1.3 billion. Meanwhile, the agency has committed $10 billion to expand Interstate 45 from downtown Houston to the suburb of Spring to accommodate increased traffic congestion along a short stretch, roughly 10 percent, of the same corridor. “You just can’t pour enough concrete and asphalt to take care of traffic in the next ten, twenty, thirty, forty years here in Texas,” LeCody said. “We’ve got to look at some multimodal solutions.”

In August, Amtrak announced it was considering a partnership with Texas Central to revive the company’s high-speed rail plan between Dallas and Houston, which promised to ferry passengers 240 miles in only ninety minutes using Japanese bullet trains. That plan had appeared all but dead: in 2022, the same month that the Texas Supreme Court ruled that Texas Central could use eminent domain to acquire property for the project, its CEO abruptly resigned and the board disbanded. Since then, landowners along the train’s potential route have grown increasingly frustrated by the company’s silence and lack of transparency.

Earlier this year, state representative Cody Harris, a Republican who represents several rural counties between Dallas and Houston, filed a bill that would have required Texas Central to disclose its financial statements, including how it planned to pay for the project—estimated to cost more than $30 billion—as well as timelines for construction and completion. In a House Transportation Committee hearing on the bill, chairman Terry Canales, a Democrat from Edinburg, lambasted Texas Central’s CEO Michael Bui, who took over in 2022 and still works as a managing director at FTI Consulting in Houston, for the company’s lack of communication. “Nobody knows what’s going on. They’ve been trying to contact you. You haven’t responded,” Canales said.

Bui defended the company, saying it had responded to “a letter from an attorney that represents a lot of the homeowners . . . We receive emails from media, emails from homeowners associations . . . and we do respond,” he said. Texas Central did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails from Texas Monthly, nor did FTI Consulting. In September, Bui wrote a letter to Canales affirming that “Texas Central has continued to make progress with its high-speed rail project” and that the company looked forward to Amtrak’s “continued collaboration” on the project. (HB 2357, the transparency bill, never went to a vote.)

A spokesperson from Amtrak declined an interview, but Michael Morris, the director of transportation at the North Central Texas Council of Governments, said the federal agency told him earlier this fall that it was in the process of reviewing Texas Central’s final environmental impact statement, completed in 2020. “Whoever builds high-speed rail between Dallas and Houston will eventually have to knock on the door of the previous Texas Central partners,” Morris said. The company still owns a significant amount of land along the corridor, and because its environmental review has already been approved, the project needs only an approval from the federal Surface Transportation Board before construction can begin. (Well, and $30 billion.)

NCTCOG also received a federal planning grant to study a high-speed rail corridor between Fort Worth, Dallas, and Houston. Morris said the Fort Worth–Dallas line has independent utility, regardless of the fate of the Dallas-Houston segment. “I think if you really, truly want to grow the economy of Texas, it’s not a heavy lift to have a foundational piece . . . being a high-speed rail.”

Alan of Railway Age is skeptical that Texas will ever get high-speed rail. It’s significantly more expensive than conventional rail, which can travel up to 110 miles per hour on a high-performance system, he said. That wouldn’t be quite as fast a trip—four and a half hours from Dallas to Houston, according to TxDOT, instead of the ninety minutes promised by high-speed rail boosters. But less pricy, more frequent passenger rail should be the first step for Texas, he said. “When you have a robust rail network, high-speed rail is not revolutionary. It’s evolutionary. When you have no trains at all, to the average person, high-speed rail is science fiction.”

Conventional rail is also perhaps more politically palatable in the Texas Legislature. In September, Harris, the legislator who filed the rail transparency bill, wrote a letter to the Federal Railroad Administration opposing Amtrak’s involvement in the Dallas-Houston corridor. “We’re just looking at a project that’s just going to continue to sink billions of dollars of taxpayer funds into it to keep it afloat,” he told Texas Monthly.

Of course, the same could be said of the interstate highway system. Texas will receive nearly $13 billion from the federal government during the next two years to build and maintain highways. But with only one stop, in the Brazos Valley between College Station and Huntsville, the high-speed rail system would primarily serve residents in Dallas and Houston, Harris said. He would be “much more open” to a traditional passenger rail project along the I-45 corridor, one that included stops in his district.

One like the Texas Eagle, perhaps?