Wear: Why plans for Texas bullet trains are still mostly a dream


TxDOT this month approved a first-level environmental study on an Oklahoma-to-Mexico train plan.

But only the center section would be “high speed,” and TxDOT has no money to continue planning the project.

And an East Texas bullet train plan, also undergoing review, is many dollars and untold years from reality.

Not yet.

Almost four years ago in this column, I raised the question of whether it was time to take seriously the prospects of a high-speed passenger rail line being built in this state. My conclusion at the time: No.

Still is.

Even with the Texas Department of Transportation’s release this month of a first-level environmental study on rail in the 550-mile corridor from the Red River to the Rio Grande Valley — and the ongoing privately funded study of a 240-mile Houston-to-Dallas line — I remain skeptical. And I am far from alone, at least in the case of that north-south connection between Oklahoma and Mexico.

There was this quote, for instance: “While the release of the (study) is welcome news, funding of the next step, a project-level, soup-to-nuts determination before building the line is very problematic. … TxDOT has no funding to carry this project forward.”

Who was dumping agua fria on that seeming milestone? Peter LeCody, president of Texas Rail Advocates. Yes, rail advocates. And this was in a press release, not some off-the-cuff statement to a reporter on the phone.

I’ve talked to LeCody periodically over the years, and you can be assured there’s almost no one in Texas with a greater desire to see fast trains crisscrossing the state than him. But the money has to be there.

For what it’s worth, that environmental study recommended Amtrak-style (but better), locomotive-powered service running along the Interstate 35 corridor from the Oklahoma border to Fort Worth at up to 90 mph. Then, running from Fort Worth to Dallas and then south, more or less adjacent to I-35 all the way to San Antonio, would be high-speed, electric-powered rail service at 220 mph or more. However, the study shows the rail corridor well to the east of Austin, meaning anyone interested in using this notional rail line would have to find their way out to the Texas 130 corridor or beyond.

The third leg, again electric-powered, would go from San Antonio to the Rio Grande Valley, with tributaries jutting off east to Corpus Christi and west to Laredo. This would be, in the curious argot of passenger rail, “higher speed” service, meaning at a top speed of 125 mph. Yes, higher speed rail is slower than high-speed rail. Somewhere an English teacher is sobbing.

Anyway, for such a plan to move closer to reality, TxDOT would have to conduct second-level environmental studies on specific legs of that corridor. And, as LeCody said, TxDOT has no money at this point for that.

Then there’s the Texas Central Railway project that would run through seven rural counties between Dallas and Harris counties. That concept has been kicking around for many years now, and it took active form when the Texans pushing it hooked up with Central Japan Railway Co., which has more than 300 high-speed train runs a day between Tokyo and Osaka.

TxDOT, in its webpage about the project, says the cost would be $16 billion — rail company officials have always been coy about this — and Texas Central Railway swears none of it would come from Texas taxpayers. Hearing that, along with the wails of people whose farms would be along the route, the Legislature this year passed Senate Bill 977 codifying that promise.

Under that law, signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in late May, no state money can be used for planning, construction, maintenance, security, promotion or operation of that East Texas railway, subject to any sort of overriding federal requirements. So, in theory, all the money would have to come from the private sector, which has a pesky tendency to fund only ventures that will turn a profit eventually.

There’s another possibility, at least for some of the money: borrowing from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The agency has such a program, and it has provided substantial loans for toll roads in Central Texas. That includes the privately funded portion of Texas 130, the part that went bankrupt last year because of less-than-expected use by paying drivers.

So Texans, in our other role as federal taxpayers, could end up putting up some cash for this railway project. And, if things don’t go well, not getting all of it back.

The company predicts, based on a consultant study, that the line would have 5 million boardings a year by 2026 (13,700 per day) and 10 million annually by 2050.

The railway company also says it would charge fares comparable to what the airlines charge for the same trip, or about $200 currently for Southwest Airlines. That would bring in a hefty $1 billion in 2026, if the company’s ridership estimates proved true. A Texas-sized “if,” to be sure.

But that’s getting way ahead of events. The Federal Railroad Administration is still working on an environmental study of the project, paid for by Texas Central Railway. A draft is expected to be released by December, a spokeswoman with the agency told me. But getting to a final, approved environmental study, which then legally allows construction, should take at least another year.

Then some of those unhappy rural folks, or someone else, might decide to challenge that environmental clearance in court. And, assuming that Texas Central Railway can clear all those hurdles and actually get its hands on $16 billion (or whatever the real cost is), the project would take four years to build, according to the developer’s website.

Like I said, it’s hard to look at all this and realistically envision seeing trains blurring by anytime soon.

California has been struggling with all this as well, with a project to build more than 500 miles of high-speed rail between Los Angeles and the Bay Area still in the study stage, beset by lawsuits and already more than seven years behind schedule. But Florida and private investors there are doing better, with a high-speed line set to open soon between Miami and West Palm Beach, and plans to extend it north to Orlando in the center of the state.

So, it can be done in America. Even with private money. And in wacky Florida, no less.

But here in Texas, along I-35 and Interstate 45? Still in wait-and-see mode.

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