Is it time to take high-speed rail in Texas seriously? Or at least half-seriously? Allow me to circle around an answer.
Start with this: A whole lot of smoke has been rising from the issue lately in the state.
Most prominently, we have a private company, Texas Central Railway, purportedly backed by Japanese interests that are behind profitable bullet trains in that country, saying it will build a 240-mile high-speed line that would take people from Houston to Dallas in 90 minutes. Company officials say they can be laying track within two years and running trains by 2021.
The two most important words in that paragraph: private and profitable, two things that U.S. passenger rail is not.
Here, trains that carry people are overwhelmingly government-owned (I’m not counting the Zilker Park Zephyr here) and always require a substantial tax subsidy. But also note what is not there: the cost of building the line, ridership estimates and the ticket cost to make that trip.
Because it is a private company, Texas Central Railway is under no legal compunction to share those numbers, at least not with anyone other than potential investors. Robert Eckels, the former Harris County judge and now the railway company’s president, did some expert rhetorical juking when asked about the potential cost at the Texas Tribune Festival in September. He disavowed an earlier $10 billion number that had gotten out, saying instead that the cost would be “multiples of billions.”
I used to be an engineer, and I must tell you I have no idea what that expression means. Billions times billions? Some integer times $1 billion? He later clarified a bit, saying it wouldn’t be in the triple-digit billions. So, the range is $10.001 billion to $99.99 billion. Oooo-K.
The Federal Railroad Administration is taking the proposal seriously enough to have given the Texas Department of Transportation $15 million to conduct preliminary engineering and an environmental impact study. Eckels last fall predicted that the study, which TxDOT officials said Friday is being paid for by the railway company, could be done in the next two years, with groundbreaking in 2016.
The Texas Transportation Commission recently appointed an advisory group to look at the possibility of extending this still notional railroad from Dallas to Fort Worth and, I’m told, will spend that $15 million instead studying a possible line there. More smoke.
It is Eckels’ job, of course, to be optimistic and enthusiastic about his project. And the federal agency, given the $8 billion set aside in the 2009 economic stimulus bill for high-speed rail, is definitely pushing the concept: 25 states have gotten grants to study high-speed rail. Texas and Oklahoma, using another $9.4 million in federal grants, are looking at the possibility of passenger rail, at various speeds, from Oklahoma City to the Mexican border. But does any of this make it likely to happen?
Eckels’ pitch is that the Japanese backers looked around the U.S. at close to 100 potential rail corridors and decided that the sleeping giant, in development terms, was the Houston-to-DFW corridor. To wit: Two metro areas with about 7 million people apiece separated by a relatively short distance, 93 percent of which (according to Eckels) is both rural and flat, and thus less of a construction challenge.
The drive by car, in this formulation, is so difficult (because of fighting through Houston and Dallas traffic) that it takes five hours if all goes well. As for flying, well, you have to get to the airport 90 minutes early, take off your shoes and undergo various other indignities to clear security, and then arrive at a destination (Hobby or Love Field) miles from downtown. So much easier to just jump on a handy, sleek bullet train in either downtown, gaze out the window at East Texas in your comfortable, wide seat and pull into your destination an hour and a half later.
But in my official capacity as a Grumpy Gus, some hurdles come to mind:
Getting out of either city: Just as in Austin, a pristine rail corridor is not sitting there vacant in Southeast Dallas and Northwest Houston waiting for someone to plop down tracks. Creating this space will be costly and a political challenge.
What about the farmers? When Gov. Rick Perry suggested cutting the Trans-Texas Corridor through the middle of the state, the Texas Farm Bureau, a natural ally of the Paint Creek native, rebelled — as did its landowning members. Granted, two tracks side-by-side wouldn’t require nearly as much right of way as Perry’s conglomeration of highways, railroads and utility lines. But it would cut a swath at least a hundred feet wide through private properties, and that will cause problems.
Is there really a market? Interstate 45, once you get away from Houston and Dallas, has about 40,000 vehicles a day on it. Along with everyone taking airline flights, we can safely assume that many of those on I-45, but not all, are the potential customers for high-speed rail. Some of those are trucks, and some are families, which Eckels has said isn’t the target market. So how many people a day might take the train instead of the car or plane? Hard to say, especially given we don’t know what a ticket would cost.
I looked up some Southwest Airlines flights, both this week and in a month, and it was about $400 round trip. The train would have to be competitive with that. And, by the way, how long before they install security checkpoints for cross-country train travel? Acts of terror have not been confined to vehicles with wings.
Can it really make money? Eckels said banks “are still backing it strongly. It can be financed. It can make a return.” He qualified that as “a patient return,” meaning perhaps years in the red before turning a profit. Where have I heard that lately? Oh, yes, about the privately built section of the Texas 130 tollway south of Mustang Ridge, the one for which the owners have hired lawyers to look into refinancing their debt because of disappointingly low traffic and revenue.
So, Texas high-speed rail, a serious possibility or not?
As I said above, there’s been a lot of smoke lately. But it seems for now more like what comes out of those e-cigarettes, artificial and mostly vapor. And Texas has been teased before by supposedly substantive high-speed rail plans that drifted away on the wind.
Put me in the wait-and-see category.