A privately funded bullet train like the one that zips passengers between major urban centers in Japan could connect Dallas and Houston—one of the most popular “supercommutes” in the U.S.—as soon as 2021, becoming one of the first lines in the U.S. to utilize high-speed rail technology.
To some, a railway that runs directly between Texas’s two biggest cities and takes a few cars off of I-45 probably seems like an overdue and much-needed piece of transportation—especially since some predict that this trip by automobile could approach a travel time of seven hours come 2035—but various iterations of this idea have received opposition for years.
Most recently, legislators added a provision to the state budget that would effectively prevent a proposed project by the Texas Central Railway from happening. The language in the rider mandated that the Texas Department of Transportation not spend any state money for “subsidizing or assisting in the construction of high-speed passenger rail,” which was essentially a deal-breaker as TCR would need to coordinate with TxDOT at some point during the planning for construction. However, proponents of the rail won a small victory when the rider was voted out of the budget bill Friday.
If Texas is going to hop on the high-speed rail train, you’d think the privately funded proposal by TCR would be appealing to the state’s entrepreneurial spirit, especially considering that pretty much every other bullet train in the world relies much more heavily on government funding. But it turns out, private sector or not, plenty of Texans still have a lot to say in opposition to a 205 mile-per-hour train running through the farmland in East Texas.
What’s the route on this line? And who’s funding it?
The line would run about 240 miles between Houston and Dallas. Texas Central Railway, the corporation proposing the line, has come up with two finalized potential alignments but, pending environmental impact analyses, has not yet announced a chosen route. TCR is saying the train would accomplish the trip in around ninety minutes, an estimate based on the Japanese train utilizing the same technology.
For comparison, the only line you can currently call “high-speed rail” in the U.S. is the Acela Express, an Amtrak line running from Washington, D.C., to Boston. It runs a similar length (D.C. to New York City, 228 miles) in two-and-a-half hours. Granted, the corridor between New York and D.C. is much more densely populated than that between Houston and Dallas.
TCR has also stated that analysis of 97 pairs of cities in the U.S. led them to a Dallas-Houston route. They said they found an optimal combination of low construction costs, demand for alternate modes of transportation between two cities, and consumers’ willingness to try high-speed rail in order to make the line profitable on this route in Texas.
As of now, TCR has made the vow that it won’t use taxpayer dollars to subsidize the train, assessing that it will be able to generate the funds between ticket sales and corporate sponsorships while maintaining ticket prices competitive with those of airlines running between the two cities.
So what’s all the fuss?
For starters, not everyone’s convinced they can do that.
The major impetus behind the Senate rider that would have paralyzed TCR from building the train was that Republican Senators foresaw the company eventually needing government (read: taxpayer) assistance.
“This project is being sold to the people of Texas that it will never need state backing or subsidization or bailing out, and unfortunately, I think that’s a complete fallacy,” Representative Charles Schwertner said in the Conference Committee Meeting.
Distrust of TCR’s ability to keep their promises pairs with a wariness for tainting the landscape between Dallas and Houston. A bullet train that runs between two of the largest cities in the country could be an incredible asset for the Dallas and Houston metro areas. But for the many miles of farmland between them, there’s not so much benefit, at least according to rural stakeholders. Farmers, ranchers, and other community members have come out and expressed vehement opposition to the train, saying it would negatively affect their property values and ruin the pristine landscape.
Some of those rural stakeholders in Madisonville, a town along one of the proposed routes for the train, are willing to go so far as to invoke an Iron Curtain analogy:
“This will be the equivalent of putting the Berlin Wall on our property,” Michelle Whitesides of Madisonville said. “It will render our land worthless.”
Though it should be a no-brainer to understand that any division the bullet train might cause will in no way reach the level of separation propogated by a militarized Cold War border, TCR has been responding to a lot of the common concerns about its routing the rail through rural Texas. For starters, the company maintains it will be able to foster connectivity across the tracks by constructing regular overpasses and culverts to allow for the flow of cattle underneath. On top of that, TCR says that the proposed routes use as much existing right-of-way as possible and that they are working with community leaders to assess the impact of the rail line.
Is this the first time Texas has tried to implement high-speed rail?
The Texas High Speed Rail Authority was an effort to construct high-speed rail between Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio/Austin (the Texas Triangle) in 1991, but their attempts were reportedly quashed in part by the efforts of Southwest Airlines and franchises that benefit from the pit stops travelers make in small towns along traditional highways. Southwest has yet to affirm that they’ve been collaborating with anti-rail advocates this time around, and American Airlines has advocated for similar high-speed rail in the past as a means of creating a collector service for passengers on its own airline.
High-speed rail was also a part of Rick Perry’s plan for the Trans-Texas corridor, a collection of highways, rail, and utility lines connecting Texas’s major cities, but this effort died officially in 2009.
So how likely is it that high-speed rail is going to happen in Texas?
For now, TCR can continue with its environmental impact analyses in hopes that the plans for the realization of the rail will pull through. While the rider may have been voted out of the budget for now, anti-rail advocacy group Texans Against High-Speed Rail has stated that they will continue to fight the project:
“Although the legislative session is coming to a close, Texans Against High-Speed Rail will continue to work with legislators as the issues related to HSR continue to be debated on transportation bills still under consideration by the Texas Legislature. We will keep you informed on how you can weigh in on those bills.”
It’s also notable that just because anti-rail lobbyists were not able to bar TxDOT from expending state funds in cooperation with TCR in any form doesn’t mean everyone is convinced the train is what’s best for Texas. Senator Joan Huffman voted yes on the motion to remove the rider from the budget but maintained that her yes vote did not necessarily signify her support for the bullet train.
TCR maintains it has funding taken care of, and that even with a downturn in the economy, the costly initiative will remain monetarily feasible. So it is arguably the farthest a high-speed rail initiative in Texas has ever gotten, and it’s overcome obstacles few seemed to think it would.
(Photo: Texas Central Railway)