Skip to comments.High-Speed Solutions: The idea of passenger rail travel to major Texas cities picks up speed.
Posted on 03/05/2008 1:47:33 PM PST by Tolerance Sucks Rocks
Driving down to Austin lately has become a real trip. I-35 is usually packed for most of the 185 miles, and what used to take three or four hours now can take five or six. Flying down can take almost as long, when you figure in airline security delays, more flight delays, and the time it takes getting into and out of crowded airports.
But what if it took 45 minutes to travel from the Metroplex to Austin by train or an hour to make a trip to Houston? Advocates of high-speed rail lines are floating these ideas once again in Texas. No plans have made it past the wish-list phase yet, but the linking of Texas urban centers with 200-mph trains is, you might say, developing wheels. And while most mass transit projects of this magnitude come from federal or state planning, this project is gaining ground with the support of local governments.
The “T-bone” project is Texas’ latest flirtation with high-speed rail. Put forward by the Texas High Speed Rail & Transportation Corp. (THSRTC), a nonprofit group that has the backing of Tarrant, Dallas, and Harris counties, the T-bone would consist of 440 miles of rail linking Fort Worth and Dallas with San Antonio and Houston. The name comes from the map of the proposal: The main line would run down the I-35 corridor from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport to San Antonio, with the line to Houston branching off near Fort Hood, north of Austin.
Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes has been elected secretary for THSRTC, and the county is spending $25,000 per year to help fund the nonprofit. Fickes recently had liver transplant surgery and was unavailable for comment for this story, but in the December THSRTC newsletter, he wrote about airport traffic congestion that the project could help alleviate.
“A high-speed train would eliminate a lot of stress and the hassle that’s associated with the current pre-boarding system now in place at our airports,” Fickes wrote. “I believe that high-speed rail is extremely bright for Texans. I have personally not encountered any negative reaction to this concept from anyone I have talked with.”
In the past, the negative reaction to such proposals came from the airlines. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Texas worked with European companies to help develop the idea of the “Texas Triangle” — rail lines that would link the Metroplex, San Antonio, and Houston. But lobbying by American and Southwest airlines helped kill the project because the airlines thought high-speed rail would cut into their short-hop Texas business.
This time around, however, T-bone supporters are courting the airlines’ support. American and Continental airlines have members on the THSRTC board and are monitoring the plan. The reason airlines are at least wiling to consider it now, according to industry sources, is that high fuel costs have made short-hop flights less profitable, and the airlines might want to link DFW to Austin passengers by train rather than by an airplane.
“The Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation idea is something that American Airlines has been and is still studying and evaluating,” American spokesman Tim Wagner said. “We have not yet decided if we support the proposed system. Regardless, though, we want to be involved in the process.”
“Things have changed in so many ways since the Texas Triangle was killed,” said former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, chairman of THSRTC. “I was in the legislature then, and everything was lobby-driven, and they made a bunch of money and no one else did. But there is a new political alignment because people like the idea of a train. And that’s why we have gone from bottom up, instead of top down. Local communities are looking to solve complex transportation problems, and they are looking for answers.”
The problems — and answers — are indeed complex. Eckels, Fickes, and other board members traveled to Spain last fall, where they met with representatives of two private companies for preliminary discussions of the T-bone project. A public-private partnership is almost a must to make it happen, Eckels said. THSRTC is pushing for a federal or state-funded study to assess building costs and potential ridership.
State and federal involvement could be extremely tricky. Both Texas and the feds have their own plans for high-speed rail, though neither has been approved or is on any kind of fast track. And both have some glaring planning problems.
The Texas Department of Transportation is now holding hearings on its Trans- Texas Corridor highway system, which would move truck and rail traffic out of urban areas onto huge new multi-modal highways. While most of the mounting opposition to the TTC has focused on the toll road portion of the proposal, the TTC also would include freight and passenger lines in the roadway median. Preliminary plans call for the passenger rail line — like the toll roads — to be built and run by private companies.
But some transportation experts see the idea of putting passenger lines outside of major urban areas as counterproductive, if not ludicrous. “Passenger rail needs to go into urban areas,” said Bill Barker, a San Antonio transportation consultant who has opposed the TTC. Barker also said construction engineering for high-speed rail is much different than for highways, in particular the need to eliminate hills and smooth out turns. Building the whole TTC “will be much more expensive if there is a high-speed rail requirement,” he said.
While TTC is gathering opposition, it also has strong support from Texas Gov. Rick Perry and the state transportation agency. The federal plan, on the other hand, is mostly gathering mothballs. The U.S. Department of Transportation has identified potential high-speed rail “corridors” throughout the U.S., including one that would run from San Antonio to DFW Airport. As it moves north, the line would branch, with one portion going north to Oklahoma and another heading into east Texas and Arkansas. U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas recently won approval of a $455,000 grant to study the feasibility of the East Texas line.
But the federal corridor projects include no links between DFW and Houston. The Houston line in the federal plan would go east into New Orleans. “Any high-speed rail plan in Texas has to link up Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston,” said Dallas County Commissioner Maurine Dickey, who is vice chairman of the THSRTC board. “You can’t have a rail plan that doesn’t link the two biggest markets. When I look at the federal and state plans, I see they do not link up the major airports and urban centers. Ours is the best route and the best plan.”
What would this “best plan” cost? It all depends on how fast the trains go. New technology called “magnetic levitating” uses electromagnetism for power, and the floating trains can run at more than 250 mph. These trains cannot run on existing tracks and cost $40 million to $60 million per mile to build. A train that uses more traditional technology to move along at 125 mph can run on upgraded existing tracks and costs about $14 million per mile, according to the Texas Transportation Institute.
The speed of the train will affect ridership, because that will determine how much more efficient the rail trip would be than going by plane or car. “What we really need to do is to get market studies done and compare the differences in technology and costs,” Eckels said. “That will allow private investors and the government the opportunity to see if this is an investment that makes sense to them.”
Dickey said the group is lobbying the U.S. Department of Defense to do an initial study, since the train line would link to Fort Hood. “If there is a homeland security emergency, we would be able to use the high-speed rail to move troops and equipment to the port of Houston very quickly,” she said.
In a 2002 letter, Fort Hood garrison commander Col. William H. Parry III wrote that the high-speed rail line would “not only enhance our current deployment capacity, but will no doubt provide a catalyst for Fort Hood to become even stronger and more capable power projection platform for our country.”
Military support is good for PR for the T-bone, but eventually the local, state, and federal governments will have to decide whether the costs are worth the benefits for the traveling public. Many see those attitudes changing.
“I think the studies done on how many people might use high-speed rail between major cities in Texas is giving the issue a little momentum,” said Chad Edwards, principal transportation planner for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. “With gas prices going up, mass- transit options in Texas are modes of transport that are slowly catching on. What is different about [the T-bone] is that it has a grassroots movement. These projects have a better chance of getting done if there is real local support.”
So could anything happen in the near future? “I knew you might ask that,” Edwards said, laughing. “There has always been a lot of talk about this, but nothing ever gets done. Maybe in 15 or 20 years, if everything goes right.”
Trans-Texas Corridor PING!
If the train runs every hour on the hour, then that's pretty convenient.
If it's twice daily then maybe it's more of a pita than driving.
I’m a railfan so I’m biased but I see this as being a great idea. As we urbanize, these high-speed intercity trains make a lot of sense. It will be expensive to build, no dobut, but I think it will pay off in the long run, especially if we build nuclear powerplants and use the juice to run these trains.
Make it all nuclear poweree and it’s a great plan.
Let me tell you, it’s a HUGE pita to drive that I-35 corridor. I absolutely HATE it..its a constant stop and go and heaven forbid there be a wreck to slow you down!!
It is a waste of time. You still need a car to get around Austin. Public transportation is not as efficient for the wide open layout in western cities.
I will always take my car with me. For one reason I see this money pit being a gun free zone and I always carry.
Yes, yes, yes.
I hereby revoke my support for the TTC (which was based upon its rail component) and give it instead to the Texas Triangle project.
Even every few hours wouldn’t be so bad. If it was an Auto-Train type affair, where you drive your vehicle into special automobile-carrying cars, that would be just about perfect. And it would probably make a lot of money while saving Texans the long boring drive between Dallas and Austin.
Check out the EuroStar and AutoTrain. They let you take your vehicle (and contents) with you!
No. what I might say is = "developing track-tion"
Hell, I’d settle for a morning and afternoon express...
“Im a railfan so Im biased but I see this as being a great idea.”
Me too, but it won’t happen here in Michigan until the almost religious adulation of the auto industry by the MSM has ended.
I hope folks have more sense in Texas.
finally someone is thinking here.
What is the deal with Texas transportation and Spanish companies?
Must have been the very same meeting Rick Perry was at and the very same people who want to put in the TTC.
In the good old days Texas had a passenger rail line. I wonder why they stopped that ...
I believe it’s the same people ... just a different name.
Lately?! I haven't traveled I35 in a decade. I will go miles out of my way to avoid it.
Nice idea but if Europe is any guide it sucks.
Visiting France last year we had the opportunity to go to from Paris to Strasburg. Since they just opened a super high speed train we thought it would be a great trip until we saw the price. 120e per person per segment or 480e for the two of us!
So we rented a car. Plus we got to make a side trip to the Verdun battlefields and other small villages not reachable by train.
Conclusion: if it’s cheap enough the train will work, but it will never be cheap if you are loading your own car with you, it will reduce carrying capacity.
So Texas needs more pavement.
Yeah, I’m dreading the drive to SXSW next week. Then, getting around to gigs at SXSW is a whole other problem. If there were a train, they could put a rental car place at the stations and voila.
Get rid of all the airport security, allow CCW, put the end points outside the urban areas (to allow for rental cars and expansions), use a dedicated nuclear plant for power, ditch the TTC and you might be in business.
Well since ALL of the existing high speed rail projects have been in Europe, the companies with the expertise for this type of project are all located over there.
wasted tax money to benefit a few rich idiots in land deals.
Willie Green memorial mag lev ping.
The last thing Texas needs is more effing pavement. Enough of this poor state is a concrete desert already.
Driving sucks. It has ruined our cities. It has ruined our countryside. There is more to life than conveeeeeeeeeenience.
You’re the only one who likes I-35. I drive it a few times a year and it’s always a huge PITA unless you’re driving it at oh-dark-thirty.
Get me from FTW to SA between 45-90 minutes at $40-$60 round trip and I will so be there. The author is right. There has to be a train going between the three metropolitan centers. I say three I keep forgetting that SA is a lot further from Austin then it looks. So I should say four metro areas. After that we can expand to Shreveport, New Orleans, OK City, Santa Fe, El Paso, Little Rock and maybe even Monterrey.
“2. Unlike European cities, US cities are not designed for foot traffic, and public transportation sux. Let us not even discuss the cost of renting a vehicle at the destination.”
You have the same problem that many in Texas have and that is you want things to stay the same. But with the every increasing population that Texas will continue to see, then we can’t keep on with urban sprawl and cobbling things together. Eventually will have to condense. People can’t stay happy living on the fringes and spending 1-2 hours a day five days a week going and coming from work. Arlington were I was born and raised is about out of land to develop. You know whats going to happen? The city will start condensing with more townhomes and high rise condos and offices. Otherwise the city will reach a max population of 430,000 and become stagnant. Traffic would be more horrendous then now and property value would drop.
I much prefer the European way of the primary residence being a home just big enough to eat and sleep in with just enough outdoor space for a small garden. Then go on many weekends retreats or purchase 5-10 acres in the country for the weekends.
If you want Texas cities to be more pedestrian friendly then get rid the ridiculous zoning ordinances and replace them with ones that make sense. Ex. Industrial businesses don’t need zoning. They will naturally congregate around each other and railways, highways and truck terminals. Same for factories and banking/financial. Just do a blanket zoning for those types of businesses in the parts of the city you want them and then let them do their thing. Then allow proper mixing of consumption commercial and residencial, not this 200-400 housing additions and 400-500 concrete paradise of apartment complexes, and you now have a good model for efficient mass transit.
Perhaps this line could link up with the new passenger rail service opening soon in the Austin/CP/Leander area.
” Unlike European cities, US cities are not designed for foot traffic, and public transportation sux. Let us not even discuss the cost of renting a vehicle at the destination.”
Autotrain is the answer you take your car with you at 200 mph. Give me a 225mph Autotrain from DFW to Austin at less than $60 round trip and I will be home in Central Texas 2x a month at that price point. It costs $40 round trip just in fuel now even at $1.69gal at $3.98 it was over a bill. no highspeed rail with the option of Autotrains is the winner for less than 500 miles distance.
Does anyone know of a light rail system that actually makes money?