For decades, the passenger railway system in the United States has been in decline. But dreams of a high-speed railway across Texas have persisted, and with a rapidly increasing population and accompanying traffic woes, it's becoming increasingly necessary. Between a recent announcement of an environmental study and concrete funding plans, the reality of a high-speed train from Dallas to Houston could actually be happening. And it could be here within the next decade.
OK, we see you back there rolling your eyes. Stop that. No, it's not 1991 again. No, the trains won't be powered by unicorns or flying pigs, wiseguy.
This for real this time. Possibly. Hey, the third time's the charm right?
Texas Central Railway has begun a federal study into the environmental impact of the high-speed rail project, and solidified a private funding plan with the help of foreign investors. The train, in collaboration with the Central Japan Railway Co. will be a shinkansen bullet train, with speeds that top 205 mph. The train could traverse the 240-mile distance between Dallas and Houston in less than 90 minutes.
"It's a great project," Robert Eckels, president of the Texas Central Railway, said. "A lot the political challenges that would get in the way of a public project are not there for us. We're very excited at the prospect." The project has received ringing endorsements from a slew of political big-names, including the mayors of Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston.
"High-speed rail has been operating safely for decades in Japan, and Texas Central Railway has been working hard to replicate that world-class safety record right here in Texas," said Tom Schieffer, a senior adviser to Texas Central Railway and the former U.S. Ambassador to Japan, in a statement. "Transforming the way Texans move around the state starts with bringing our infrastructure into the 21st century. Texas can blaze the trail for a new America by being the first to demonstrate the value of letting the private sector lead the way on high-speed rail."
But before you buy your early-bird ticket, let's step back for a moment: We've been down this railroad before. In 1991, the Texas High Speed Rail Authority was founded to organize mostly French and British foreign investors for another privately funded railway. This plan, called the "Texas Triangle," flopped when the authority couldn't garner enough funds (the fact that airlines opposed it, as did businesses that operate along Texas highways, didn't help any). Governor Rick Perry proposed another high-speed rail project, this one a part of his Trans-Texas Corridor, but that was squashed by state legislators in 2009.
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So perhaps a little skepticism is justified here. Sean Jeans-Gail, a spokesman for the National Association of Railroad Passengers, says this latest plan has a few hurdles to clear. "It's easy to say upfront that this is going to be entirely privately funded, but when you look at the cost at some point they're going to look to state or federal funding for help," he says. "I think they're probably going to look to public assistance."
If Texas Central Railway does seek public assistance -- a very likely possibility, given the roughly $10 billion price tag -- it will have to abide by federal manufacturing standards that require domestic railroad parts. If that happens, it's sayonara to Japanese and other foreign investors.
"It's certainly natural to be skeptical, given how many proposals there have been," Jeans-Gail says. But he says investment won't be the biggest issue. "The moment you figure out the route, you have winners and losers in terms of who's going to have trains going through their towns, who's going to have to move their businesses. High-speed rails have to be a straight shot, and there aren't as many turns to accommodate the human impact. There are things you can do to move around that, but that costs a lot."
Still, Jeans-Gail and most other railroad advocates agree this could be closest we've ever gotten to actually building a high-speed rail. "I do have a lot of confidence in the project. It's a great distance and when you look at the growth happening in Texas and the kind of congestion you see, it's going to be a very attractive travel option for businesses," says Jeans-Gail. "I think we're witnessing a seismic shift in the industry."