Proposed Dallas-to-Fort Worth 'Bullet Train' Just Got Even Dumber

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As odd as it may seem at first glance given Texas' highly developed car culture, the Dallas-to-Houston corridor might be the best spot in the country for high-speed rail. The two cities are at the center of heavily populated and economically dynamic metropolitan areas. They are separated by 220 miles, which is right in the sweet spot for high-speed rail: too far to comfortably drive but too close to be worth the hassle of air travel. The land between the two cities is dry, flat and lightly populated, minimizing land acquisition and construction costs. It's no accident that high-speed rail boosters have been eyeing the corridor for more than a quarter century.

The corridor between Dallas and Fort Worth has almost none of those advantages. The two cities' downtowns are barely 30 miles apart. In between is not undeveloped farmland but Arlington, the 50th largest city in the country. Though the two cities are economically interconnected, the presence of multiple highway connections (Dallas and Houston, by contrast, has one) would seem to limit potential demand for high-speed rail. Little wonder then that Texas Central Railway ignored the demands of politicians from the western portion of the DFW area and dismissed as unprofitable a Fort Worth extension of its planned Dallas-to-Houston bullet train.

No matter. Local officials and the Texas Department of Transportation have nevertheless forged ahead with plans for the shunned link. Two years ago, the Texas Transportation Commission established the Commission for High-Speed Rail in the Dallas/Fort Worth Region using some of a $18 million federal rail-planning grant that Texas Central, pointedly abjuring public subsidy, had refused to touch. And so while Texas Central's every move has grabbed headlines, the mellifluously acronymed CFHSRDFWR has forged ahead in relative silence.

According to Fort Worth Star-Telegram transportation writer Gordon Dickson, the commission has now decided on a preferred route for the $4 billion line. Dickson writes:

The proposal, which is being studied by a state-appointed commission, would bring passengers from downtown Fort Worth to Arlington along the Interstate 30 corridor, then cut north roughly along the Texas 360 corridor to the CentrePort-Dallas/Fort Worth Airport area. From there, rail passengers could connect with other transportation to the airport to catch flights.

The line would then follow the Trinity Railway Express commuter line from CentrePort to downtown Dallas, according to a conceptual map made public Monday. TRE would keep operating on its tracks, and a second set of tracks — possibly elevated — would be built in the same right of way or adjacent property for the futuristic bullet trains.

The top speed would be around 125 mph (between 130 and 160 mph) to far below the 220 mph that the trains are capable of traveling — partly because of the serpentine shape of the route and the relatively short distance between stations.

There's a lot of stupid to unpack there. First, let's stipulate that the basic point of high-speed rail is that it gets passengers from point A to point B more quickly and conveniently than other transportation options. This necessarily requires making the route as straight as possible. Now consider the map below, which we created to give a (very rough) idea of the route the rail will take. TxDOT spokeswoman Becky Ozuna says the commission is still considering running the entire line alongside the TRE tracks. Here's what their conceptual maps look like right now:
The hybrid route provides certain advantages (i.e., avoiding I-30 through Dallas County, where it's more heavily developed, and providing a way to link to DFW airport), but it also creates an ungainly dogleg that will slow trains and extend travel times. The intermediate station is another problem. While expanding options for reaching DFW airport is generally a good idea, adding a stop — and thus increasing travel time — on a high-speed rail route that's already probably too short to effectively compete with cars — will only further undermine the viability of the project.

Assuming the trains could barrel from Dallas to Fort Worth at their top speed of 220 mph, the trip would take a bit longer than eight minutes. Reduce the speed by a third or more, add a few extra miles of track to make the dogleg and add a stop in the middle, and the trip will be closer to 20 minutes. Still quick, but for local users — those not heading from Fort Worth to Houston — probably not quick enough to offset the inconvenience of buying tickets, traveling to the station and securing transportation at one's destination. The vast majority of people will find it preferable to drive. For people without a car or who would otherwise prefer a plodding rail trip to driving, there's the TRE. It seems like officials could make Dallas-to-Fort Worth rail a more attractive transportation option — maybe by increasing frequency and adding express routes on the TRE — without spending $4 billion on wannabe high-speed rail.

This post has been corrected since it was initially published. TxDOT spokeswoman Becky Ozuna says the train's operating speed will be between 130 and 160 mph, not capped at 125 mph as previously reported. Also, the post initially said the commission had been considering either a route entirely along I-30 or entirely along the TRE tracks but had settled on a hybrid. Two possible routes — the hybrid and the TRE — are still under consideration.

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