Thursday, March 27, 2014

More on the Texas Central Railway

Earlier this week a handful of us local blog-types sat down with TCR prez Bob Eckels, outreach director David Hagy, and press spox David Benzion to get an update on the bullet train they're planning for the Houston-Dallas corridor.

I won't bury the lede; color me cautiously optimistic.  If you wish, watch some of Eckels giving essentially the same pitch elsewhere that we got here.

A summary, courtesy to me from Charles Kuffner -- who has led in the early reporting -- because my audio capabilities were somewhat impaired during our gathering:

-- TCR is privately funded and they expect to be profitable if only the proposed Houston to Dallas route gets built. They will build with future expansion in mind and to accommodate connections with future rail systems, including one that is probably highest in priority, linking Dallas to Fort Worth.  (See below for the link to today's press conference with the mayors of H-Town, Big D, and Cowtown.)

-- There will be rail stations in downtown Houston and Dallas, and perhaps a handful of others elsewhere in both cities. Depending on the ultimate route chosen -- there are three possible alignments -- there may be a stop in-between, in Bryan/College Station or Huntsville or some other city.

-- Going private means, among many other considerations, that they could plan the route and station locations without having to take political considerations and consequences into account.  The TCR will be still regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration, and once they submit their intent to build to the FRA (next month), they will go through the environmental impact study and public hearing process just as TxDOT or Metro or any other public agency would. 

-- My question to Judge Eckels in our meeting was about eminent domain.  His response was that they will have that capability, but their preference is to make the kind of offer people will want to accept, as that is cheaper than involving attorneys (and certainly better from a PR perspective).  They will mostly be using existing railroad rights of way and don't expect to have to usurp the property of too many landowners.

Frankly, this response suggests a prescription for some pretty thick rose-colored glasses.  The obstacles will sprout like weeds as soon as their route gets published.  Will the train be elevated in rural areas, minimizing the danger of crossings?  Surely it's not going to be constructed mostly at-grade -- dangerous for country travelers -- or below, which would seemingly be the most expensive and present challenges of unexpected kinds. (These are questions I wished I had asked, and will pose to communications director Benzion.)

-- So far the project has not encountered opposition they have been unable to overcome. When they held a similar get-together with Houston-area conservo-bloggers, the primary reaction there was suspicion that their plan would evolve to securing taxpayer funding.  Noteworthy here was Eckels' emphasis on efforts to keep politics out of the project, and particularly the politics of the far right minimized.  He wants the Railway to neither be tarred with an "Obama" brush nor be touted as some strain of  'Texas exceptionalism'.  This is an admirable goal and a challenging mission, IMHO.

Eckels also says that environmental groups 'like' them, and that they have good relationships with the FRA and with other rail builders such as the one in California.

Again, my initial take here with respect to the ecological concerns is a dash of skepticism.  After our meeting, my brother Neil expressed some regret that he had not asked about the Houston toad, an endangered species that lives in some of the area likely to be transited by the bullet train and already experiencing stress from roadways, pipelines, transmission lines and the construction of all those.

Overall, this "socialist" can get on board with the Texas Central Railway, especially if it expands service to those Texans who are not part of the "luxury" class.  Even if it remains an elite mode of transportation affordable by only the 1%, though, it wins environmentally by getting cars off the road and squeezing yet more efficiency from the airlines.

How the Railway handles their security, TSA-style and along the physical line itself, is a question that still needs an answer.

Mayors Annise Parker of Houston, Mike Rawlings of Dallas, and Betsy Price of Fort Worth are hosting media at Houston's city hall this morning to make an announcement about high speed rail.  Isiah Carey at Fox 26 has posted the press release, and I'll add anything they have that I don't afterwards.

Update: Here's the Chron's take.

The caption of the photo oops, 'photo illustration' above of a Japanese bullet train reads: "The planned high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas would use overhead electrical lines and its own separated tracks to shuttle riders between the two metro areas, through mostly flat, rural land."  I interpret that as mostly at-grade.  I wonder if we will hear the same conservative whining that we have endured for the last decade about Houston Metro's light rail service.

Update II: Posted in the comments to this news in another forum, this Wiki link relates the long, tortured history of high speed rail in Texas.  It should be interesting to see if some of the same old coalitions line up to stifle it again.

Update III: CultureMap covered this morning's presser, and Texas Leftist -- who was with me at the meeting earlier in the week -- filed his story.


Gadfly said...

I think Waco makes the best sense of any intermediate stop on Houston-Dallas. Indeed, there was an HSR meeting in Waco a few weeks ago that I didn't get to.

Quentin said...

I worked as a Freight Brakeman / Conductor for 17 years (1977-1995). The MKT (Katy) and the UP after the UP bought the Katy. The RRs back then did NOT want passenger trains on their tracks. AFAIK, they still don't. The only reason they tolerate Amtrak is because the US Government gives them so much money to allow trackage rights. We freight crews hated Amtrak back then, because oft times we had to wait for Amtrak, and that delayed us getting over the road, thus delayed getting home, or getting to the terminal at the other end of the road, and getting our rest. The one who really hated Amtrak were Maintenance of Way people who could only come out, work for a few hours, then stop working and clear Amtrak one direction, then repeat the process for Amtrak the other direction.

In the US we have High-Speed passenger rail traffic in the only places the population density is high enough, which is the Northeast Corridor with multiple main lines.

If we want widespread High-Speed passenger rail in this country, then we will have to spend the money to build dedicated High-Speed passenger only rails lines and all that entails. That means no rail crossing at grade. None. No chances of any car / truck and train ever colliding. Ever. Bridges / overpasses everywhere train and surface roads meet. How much will that cost to build per mile? I have seen estimates from $20 million a mile to $2 billion a mile. And that is just the track, no rolling stock.

The legal rubbish would be monumental. Everyone would have both hands out thinking they won the Lottery because someone was going to buy their land for rail lines. Politicians would fight tooth and nail to have the train come thought their city or town. There would be the NIMBYs who would try to stop they whole thing because of the noise, or it ruined their quality of life or their view, or some other excuse, just like they do with wind energy. Then the environmentalists would get into the act claiming animals would be driven to extinction or the local ecology would be irreparably damaged, or some other excuse.

We can't even build wind turbines to help us become energy self-sufficient without someone complaining about THEIR view being spoiled, birds being slaughtered, the desert ecology being destroyed, someone suffering from nervous complaints because of noise and vibration from wind turbines, or some other excuse, and you think we're going to get widespread High Speed Passenger rail in this country?

I would love to see High-Speed rail in Texas. We’ve been hearing about it for 30+ years, so I’ll believe it when I see it.

PDiddie said...

All valid considerations, Quentin. Thanks for posting.

Gadfly said...

Per the Wiki link, I am shocked, shocked, I tell you, that the lawyer-founder who litigated Southwest into existence would try to litigate something else out of existence.

Another good reason for a carbon tax, maybe?