Wednesday, January 22, 2014

High speed rail between Houston and Dallas: what you need to know

Last Monday, former Harris County Judge and current President of Texas Central Railway Robert Eckels came to the Houston-Galveston Area Council to make a lunchtime presentation (video here) of his company's plans for a bullet train that, as early as 2021, would make the trip from Houston to Dallas in 90 minutes or less. Here are some of the highlights from his presentation:
  • This train is intended to be privately-financed and operated. Texas Central will work with government agencies such as the Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration, and is in fact working with them on environmental studies right now, but the train itself will not be operated nor subsidized by the government.
  • This train's speed could top out at 205 miles per hour on the Houston-Dallas run, due to relatively flat topography and overwhelmingly rural development between the two cities. 
  • The train's city-to-city travel time of 90 minutes is competitive with flying, when time getting through security and boarding the aircraft is taken into account.
  • Seven different alignments are under consideration, but all try to use existing rights-of-way (along I-45 or existing Union Pacific or BNSF trackage) to keep land acquisition costs as low as possible. 
  • The train will be fully-grade separated, as all bullet trains are in Japan. 
  • Train departures will be as frequent as every half-hour, which matches frequencies currently offered by Southwest Airlines between Hobby Airport and Love Field. 
  • Ticket prices are expected to be slightly less than the current commercial airfare between Houston and Dallas, but a fare structure is nowhere near finalized.
  • Station locations in Houston and Dallas are still under study but downtown termini appear to be preferred; getting into downtown Dallas from the south is going to be easier than getting into downtown Houston from the north due to the way the two cities have developed. 
  • As of right now, there are no plans for any intermediate stops between Houston and Dallas. This is probably not something that folks from Bryan/College Station or The Woodlands want to hear, and there may be opportunities to provide those stations in the future, but initially this is envisioned to be a non-stop service. 
  • Likewise, these trains will not stop at any airports, because it is not economic to do so at this time. Right-of-way for a future extension from Dallas to DFW airport and Fort Worth will be preserved, however.
  • The vociferous opposition from Southwest Airlines that killed a similar plan for high speed rail in Texas in the 1990s has not materialized. This is because Southwest's business model has changed significantly in the last 20 years. This is due to factors such as the expiration of Wright Amendment restrictions on service to and from Love Field in Dallas, the fact that Southwest is now a truly "national" airline, and increases in jet fuel costs that make the short-haul flights that Southwest used to rely on, such as Hobby-to-Love, less profitable. 
  • The price tag for the train's construction is a nice, round $10 billion.
Eckels noted that the challenges to building this bullet train are financial, rather than environmental or technical in nature, but that private funding sources are being sought and that if things "pencil in," then this project will become a reality. He says he's "cautiously optimistic;" I'm somewhat less optimistic, if for no other reason than rounding up $10 billion in private capital is a significant hurdle to clear. I'm also worried that actually getting the trains into the centers of both Houston and Dallas will be a lot harder than Texas Central anticipates.

On the other hand, it's clear that Texas Central is not some wild-eyed, pie-in-the-sky operation. Eckels leads an experienced and politically-savvy team, their backing from Central Japan Railway is real, and their plans are being taken very seriously by federal, state and local authorities. It's all about being able to ensure that their investors make a profit, and to that end Texas Central is not looking just at fares but also development opportunities around stations for maximum value capture.

I've ridden the Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka, and I would take that over a cramped seat on a 737 or a boring car ride on I-45 any day. So while I have my doubts, I'm nevertheless rooting for Eckels and Texas Central to succeed.

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