Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A bullet train between Houston and Dallas comes into view

Today our little progblog contingent is taking a meeting with the principal players, including former Harris County Judge Bob Eckels and his comm director, David Benzion, about this.

In Asia and Europe, tens of millions of people have been happily riding high-speed bullet trains for decades. On our own shores, however, the implementation of intercity high-speed rail has suffered from a host of delays. The one system that has managed to get moving, somewhat—California’s—has lately found itself beset by legal problems and public cynicism over rising costs and the use of eminent domain to obtain private land for the rail line’s right-of-way.

The situation has fans of high-speed rail worried. If America’s first bullet-train system can’t get built in high-tech, environmentally progressive California, they wonder, where can it possibly get built?

Hold on to your ten-gallon hats. Texas, of all places, has emerged as the state that may stand the best chance of winning the U.S. race for high-speed rail. That California might lose bullet-train bragging rights to a state governed by a pro-fracking climate-change skeptic may come as a surprise. But a Texas triumph could also provide us with a teachable moment about how to tailor bullet-train projects to the different cultures and demographics of all 50 states.

 Way back in 2012, CultureMap had it first.

Talks of the quick trans-Texas trip have been underway since 2010, when Central Japan Railway Company (JR Central) rallied for part of an $8 billion federal grant that President Barack Obama set aside for high-speed rail corridors.

That effort failed, but JR Central has teamed up with the Texas-based company to raise roughly $10 billion in private dollars for the Houston-to-DFW route. Eckels believes federal involvement slows the process and piles on expenses, and claimed that private money would be repaid by riders' fares — "competitive and in many cases less than airfares."

The "no-taxpayer-dollars" thing should be popular with a certain caucus.

Though his company has been working closely with federal and state agencies on safety and right-of-way issues, TCR president Robert Eckels is confident that “our private development approach will be successful for this corridor.” TCR’s market-led approach, he adds, “will be differentiated by the high level of customer experience offered.”

That level is hinted at on TCR’s website, which emphasizes the speed and luxuriousness of the Japanese-built trains that would make up the company’s rolling stock. Clearly TCR hopes to lure the same Texas business travelers who helped make Southwest Airlines a homegrown corporate success story—but who now complain that the time spent getting into and out of airports has made flying between Dallas and Houston not much faster, and definitely not any easier, than driving.

Yes, eminent domain for a private operation such as this might not be a concern here, thanks to a recent development in the Keystone XL pipeline's legal tussle that was resolved in TransCanada's favor and against a Texas landowner.  And when I say 'resolved', I mean the SCOTX declined to hear her case.

The On Earth article has more on the environmental benefits of taking so many cars off the road and airline passengers out of the sky, and here's the bottom line on that.

Mass transit yields an environmental dividend regardless of why people use it. Were the nation’s first bullet train to come about thanks to Texas business travelers—shuttling, ironically, between two capitals of the oil and chemical industries—it could be the best advertisement imaginable. If high-speed rail is good enough for the good ol’ boys and gals of Texas, maybe the rest of America will realize that it’s good enough for them too.

So I'll be anxious to hear what more they can tell us about this development.  I'll have a followup post tomorrow morning.

1 comment:

Gadfly said...

I'd love to see HSR take off here. Texas has got metro centers big enough, and just far enough apart, to make this a legitimate competitor with air travel on speed and cost.

Flip side? Beyond the eminent domain you mentioned will be attempts to railroad through (I see what I did there) all the environmental parts of the permitting process.