High-speed rail moving fast despite attempts to derail the project | Crain's Houston

High-speed rail moving fast despite attempts to derail the project

  • A close-up of the N700 Series Shinkansen bullet train in Japan that Texas Central hopes to have running by 2023. | Photo courtesy of Texas Central Railway.

    A close-up of the N700 Series Shinkansen bullet train in Japan that Texas Central hopes to have running by 2023. | Photo courtesy of Texas Central Railway.

  • The bullet train passes through Tokyo with the skyline in the background. | Photo courtesy of Texas Central Railway.

    The bullet train passes through Tokyo with the skyline in the background. | Photo courtesy of Texas Central Railway.

  • A look inside the first-class high-speed rail train in Japan, which Texas Central will model its trains after. | Photo courtesy of Texas Central Railway.

    A look inside the first-class high-speed rail train in Japan, which Texas Central will model its trains after. | Photo courtesy of Texas Central Railway.

  • A rendering of the Japanese-style bullet train passing over a road in Texas. | Photo courtesy of Texas Central Railway.

    A rendering of the Japanese-style bullet train passing over a road in Texas. | Photo courtesy of Texas Central Railway.

Construction on the long-awaited Dallas to Houston high-speed rail project could start by the end of 2018 or early 2019, putting the privately funded bullet train on track for opening in 2022 or 2023.

The 240-mile double track will cost $12 billion with stations in downtown Dallas, Grimes County (near College Station) and northwest Houston, said Holly Reed, managing director of internal affairs for Texas Central Railway, the company behind the project.

The project expects to surpass several milestone by year’s end when the draft environmental report is released, signaling financial close. Then, planners can dig in as they’ll have the final sections of the route identified. Texas Central Railway recently hired Irving-based Fluor Enterprises and Lane Construction Corp. to do pre-planning, scheduling and sequencing for the construction.

“Everyone is working diligently making sure we’ve got all the details that we need to do the project,” Reed said. “It’s a mega project that will employ more than 10,000 people during construction.”

Texas Central has partnered with the Central Japan Railway Company and plans to use the N700 Series Shinkansen train cars that can reach speeds of 200 mph.

Rural opposition

But not everyone’s jumping on board.

Many rural landowners don’t want a bullet train whipping by on elevated tracks that bisect their property. Texans Against High-Speed Rail are fighting Texas Central at every turn, including whether the private company can call itself a railroad. The distinction is important because the company needs to be a railroad to have eminent domain authority.

Kyle Workman, president of the opposition group, said high-speed rail always requires government subsidies.

“It borders on absurdity. There’s no evidence anywhere in the world that they’ll be able to make this thing profitable,” Workman said. “Even if they build it privately it would be the largest private infrastructure project in the U.S. It won’t ever be able to pay its bills and will be absorbed by the government," he said.

The fact that the private company could seize people’s land through eminent domain and then force taxpayers to subsidize the train adds “insult to injury,” Workman said. And with the stations being hundreds of miles away, the rural landowners get all the negatives and none of the positives, he added.

“You can’t just decide one day that you want to be a railroad and condemn people’s property,” he said. “Texas Central has no trains, no tickets and no money to buy that. They’re not even remotely considered a railroad.”

Workman, who moved to the country to escape urban life, already has a freight line going through his property and, at one time, the bullet train might have followed that route. Texas Central instead chose to follow a utility corridor so Workman’s land isn’t affected but continues to fight the project.

“We’re actually a group of landowners in the path, landowners not in the path and taxpayers who feel like this is a disaster waiting to happen on so many levels,” Workman said.

And there’s a lot of land left to acquire.

In a statement, Texas Central officials said the constitution and Texas Legislature have long granted eminent domain to railroads and utilities. But eminent domain will be a last resort.

“We hope to never have to go through that process,” Reed said. “We would much rather work directly with landowners as neighbors than go through the court system,” Reed said.

But Workman said Texas Central hired aggressive landmen who are threatening property owners with eminent domain even though they don’t have that power. Some are capitulating rather than fight it, he said.

Right now, Texas Central Railway has 30 percent of the parcels required to build the train and only about 60 percent of the route is confirmed, Reed said.

“There’s a significant portion of the route right now that doesn’t have a single line on the map,” Reed said. “When we get the draft environment there will be.”  

Efforts to derail the project in the Texas Legislature were mixed. Bills that prohibit the state from funding any portion of the train were approved. Others that would prohibit Texas Central from using eminent domain failed to pass.

Funding?

The leaders behind the Texas bullet train studied city pairs throughout the country before finding Dallas to Houston as the most viable. The relatively flat terrain, distance and the amount of travel between the two cities played a large role, officials say.

“We are a free market led project so we make all our decisions based on data,” Reed said.

Texas Central is seeking pension funds, private equity and others who want to invest in a rare private transportation project to fund the train.

“A lot of funds out there have a focus on infrastructure because they want that in their portfolio,” Reed said. 

And who will pay for the train after it is complete?

“There are a lot of early adopters for technology and we expect a lot of demand from students who are more and more looking for alternate ways to travel,” Reed said. “It would be the safest way to travel from College Station to North Texas.”

However, Workman said the bullet train will only cater to the wealthy. Most travelers will find it easier to fly or drive between the two cities.

“This is not a mass transit solution for the average traveler,” he said. “It’s a luxury train experience. The middle class won’t buy four tickets on a train.”

He also doesn’t see students at Texas A&M wanting to buy bullet train tickets to come to Dallas, especially if the train station is 30 miles from College Station.

A closer look at the stations

Jack Matthews, president of Matthews Southwest, has a grand vision for Dallas’ high-speed rail station, located on Riverfront Boulevard and Cadiz Street, just southwest of downtown.

He envisions a towering facility surrounded by rental and Uber car lots, hotels, retail, offices, restaurants and connections to Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s light rail and streetcar systems. The 85-acre site is mostly undeveloped, making it a prime candidate for what could be the country’s first high-speed rail station.

“You’re expanding downtown south is effectively what you’re doing,” Matthews said. “Anything you can imagine in downtown, you can imagine on those sites. A perfect station is kind of a gathering spot in the high-density area. People are used to thinking of stations as independent buildings. It may in the end become that but what we’re working on right now is a concept where the area becomes the station.”

Like Texas Central, Matthews is waiting for the final environmental report to be released.

“For the actual design, we have to know where the tracks are going. The hard planning on our part starts as soon as that’s finished,” Matthews said. “Hopefully, we’ll have that nailed down in the next few months.”

Matthews has owned the property for several years and was close developing it when Texas Central came knocking.

Texas Central hasn’t announced the final location for the Houston station but Matthews said he’s got a contract on the land right now so he could develop that station, too.

“There’s been an area chosen but it’s in the environmental assessment,” he said. “It’s really getting through Washington right now with all the regulations.”

September 13, 2017 - 11:45am