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High-speed rail

What Will It Take to Build a Bullet Train in Texas?

A long-fought high speed rail project may be coming back from the dead — and what happens next could be instructive for other communities hoping to someday run trains in highway-dominated states. 

12:01 AM EDT on August 29, 2023

Photo: Nanashinodensyaku, CC

For more than a decade, a private company called Texas Central has been promising, and struggling, to build a high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston, two of the state’s largest cities. By 2020, the company boasted, Japanese-style bullet trains would take passengers 240 miles in about 90 minutes – less than half the time it would take to drive the same distance. 

Needless to say, it didn’t happen. Most of the land on the bullet train’s proposed route is privately owned, and landowners weren’t eager to sell, forcing Texas Central to fight an uphill battle to gain the power of eminent domain. The state legislature didn’t seem enthusiastic about the project, either, even going so far as to try to prohibit the state’s Department of Transportation from providing any financial assistance to the project. Then, in 2022, most of the company’s staff and leadership quietly departed

“It gave every indication of going dormant – almost cicada-like,” says Allan Rutter, a researcher at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. 

Cicadas, though, tend to come up for air every few years — and this month, the bullet train seemed to be on the brink of being revived, too. Texas Central announced that Amtrak is now partnering on the Dallas to Houston project, and will “seek opportunities to advance planning and analysis work … to further determine [the bullet train’s] viability.” 

This type of public-private partnership to build out major transit infrastructure is unique — and some advocates say it’s a good sign that the bullet train stands a fighting chance of being built. The two groups have already submitted grant applications for federal funding to pay for analyses and design studies, taking advantage of the  $1.4 billion in federal grants available for railway infrastructure under “Amtrak Joe” Biden’s signature infrastructure spending bill. 

Even if Texas Central and Amtrak do win federal funds, though, experts caution that some of the challenges that have already delayed the project might still persist. And how the Texas rail industry navigates them will be instructive for other communities hoping to someday run trains in highway-dominated states.  

“In most states where this kind of service has succeeded, it’s done so because the state itself has said, ‘We’d like to invest in that,’” Rutter says. “[But] inter-city travel that’s not highways is something that Texas legislators have not expressed an awful lot of interest in.”

‘Who’s going to ride that?’

Prior to the post-war interstate highway buildout, inter-urban passenger rail actually did run between major Texas cities — and from 1936 until 1966, the Sam Houston Zephyr even offered trips between Dallas and Houston. But Rutter says that “with the advent of interstates and deregulated air travel, that meant passenger rail wasn’t as useful, particularly for short distances.” 

Moreover, the outfits operating Texas’ passenger rail industry were private companies that simply couldn’t compete and with billions of dollars in public subsidies for expressways. As driving became convenient and quick, ridership dropped, and the state of Texas handed most of its existing routes over to Amtrak by the 1970s. Today, Amtrak still operates the Texas Eagle between Chicago to San Antonio (through Dallas), but travelers from Houston and Dallas can only reach one another by car or intercity bus.  

The Sam Houston Zephyr, 1956. Photo: Texas History

Advocates like Rick Harnish, the executive director of the High Speed Rail Alliance, say attempts have been made to revive passenger rail in Texas over the years. But many of those efforts were ultimately quashed when airlines lobbied heavily against competition for short-distance, high-frequency trips between major cities. 

“There was a high-speed rail authority in Texas in the '90s,” Harnish says. “Southwest Airlines put a lot of money into killing it. And Texas has decided that if we just keep adding more highway lanes, we will solve the congestion problem.” [Editor’s note: It won’t.]

To make matter’s worse, Amtrak’s reputation in Texas isn’t exactly stellar. There’s only one daily train between Dallas and Austin, for example, and it takes about twice as long as driving. Delays are common as trains get stuck in major hubs like Chicago or St. Louis. 

“Who’s going to ride that? People who either just love trains or have no other choice,” Harnish says. 

The success of passenger rail in other U.S. communities, though, suggests that trains don’t have be a mode of last resort. The Dallas to Houston route is about the same length and distance as the much more popular Acela Express route between New York and DC, which reliably gets travelers between the two cities in under three hours. Texas Central and Amtrak estimate that, once built, the train between Dallas and Houston could be similarly successful, taking 12,500 cars off the highway daily while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel dependency between two cities that are currently major fossil fuel hubs. 

Even if the bullet train gets built, though, Harnish says there will still be the issue of a lack of easy, expansive public transportation at each destination, unless Dallas and Houston start building it now. 

“This should be the first leg of a network that combines high-speed rail and connects to local buses – so you can travel the state without a car,” Harnish says. 

The enduring appeal of riding the rails

Even without corresponding local transit investments, the high-speed rail network in Texas remains something of a moonshot. After the announcement, some state and local interests have expressed the same disdain for the project as in years past, including Jennifer Stevens of ReRoute, who accused Texas Central of not being “honest and transparent about the funding sources that are going to be required from taxpayers.”   

Other local leaders, though, are getting on board. Travis County officials, like Judge Andy Brown, have called for a stop in Austin, and the backers of another, shorter high speed rail line between Dallas and Fort Worth announced that it might even get built before Texas Central. Local officials working on the 30 mile corridor have said that being able to connect to a larger, state-wide system led by Amtrak could help ensure the success of their project, too. 

“Clearly, the prospect of this service continues to be something that appeals to these urban areas,” Rutter adds. 

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