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May 7, 2019updated 28 Jan 2020 12:22pm

Houston, we have a project: Texas’ high-speed railway

Texas’ ongoing high-speed project has recently been named among the top infrastructure projects in a Strategic 100 Global Infrastructure Report. Here is a look at the project and how it is bidding to become America’s first high-speed rail network.

By Patrick Kingsland

It is the second most populated state in the United States of America, with some 28 million residents. If it were a country, its governor has suggested it would have the tenth highest GDP in the world. But as both the economy and population of the southern state of Texas expands, its transportation links are facing increasing pressure.

As things stand roughly half of Texas’ population is linked by Interstate 45, a single highway that runs from Dallas in the north to Houston and Galveston, on the Texas Gulf Coast.

The current journey time between Houston and Dallas ranges from between three and a half, to five and a half hours – though travel times are expected to exceed six hours in coming years as traffic increases.

In 2016, the route was ranked America’s second deadliest highway based on federal road safety data analysed by the research firm ValuePenguin.

“The state’s infrastructure cannot keep up with growth,” says Tim Keith, chief investment officer at Texas Central. “Without more critical infrastructure, Texas could become a victim of its own success.”

Texas bullet train

But out of the congestion, delays, and in some instances tragedy, comes a new, first-of-its kind project by the private company Texas Central: a 200mph high-speed bullet train line that will shuttle passengers between Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston, with a midway stop at Brazos Valley – all in just 90 minutes.

“The Texas Train will drive the emergence of a super economy.”

The project, dubbed the first true high-speed train in the United States is unusual in that it will rely largely on private capital, though some funding has been provided by entities backed by the Japanese Government.

It was recently named among the world’s top infrastructure projects in advocacy group CG/LA’s 2019 Strategic 100 Global Infrastructure Report, “testament”, says Keith, “to the hard work of hundreds of experts coming together from around the US and around the globe to build something new and exciting that will take Texas into the future.”

“The Texas Train will drive the emergence of a ‘super economy’ combining the economic might of Houston and Dallas with the institutional brain power of the ninth largest research institution in the country with the stop near Texas A&M University in the Brazos Valley,” Keith adds.

A “globally recognised sweet spot”

The train will make use of Japanese technology, specifically the Tokaido Shinkansen train system – a revolutionary rail technology that is now capable of travelling at speeds of more than 170mph.

Over the course of the Shinkansen’s 50-plus years, its trains have carried more than 10 billion passengers without a single fatality – a welcome statistic given the Interstate 45’s poor safety record.

“The most successful international high-speed train routes provide a point-to-point service and connect big cities.”

With 240 miles of track to construct, the project is expected to involve roughly 10,000 people during each year of construction, and will create more than 1,500 full-time, permanent jobs. It will be one of the largest infrastructure projects in the world, or as Keith puts it “construction on a Texas-size scale”.

“This job creation is good for Texas and the US,” he says.

The 240-mile-long corridor has been described by Texas Central as a “globally recognised sweet spot for high-speed rail”. That’s because the route is too far to drive but too close to fly; relatively flat, posing no additional construction challenges; and connects two of the largest and fastest growing economies in the United States.

“There are key characteristics that have proven to be a sweet spot for high-speed train service globally, including the distance between cities, the size and economic activity in the cities, which drives business and leisure travel alike,” says Keith. “Simply put, the most successful international high-speed train routes provide a point-to-point service and connect big cities.”

Landowners object

Of course, as with any project of its scale, there has been considerable criticism. A key sticking point so far has been the purchasing of private land. To date, Texas Central says it has options to purchase just 30% of the properties needed for the railroad.

“Discussing a Texan’s land is always an emotional and deeply personal matter.”

A local advocacy group, Texans Against High Speed Rail has created a Land Defense Fund “to offer landowners a collective effort to protect their lands and ecologically sensitive natural resources and wildlife from being harmed long before eminent domain (which refers to the power of the government to take private property and convert it into public use) is necessary.”

In February, a Leon County Judge ruled that Texas Central does not have the authority to force landowners to sell or provide access to their properties – a significant setback for the company. Texas Central disagreed and plans to appeal the ruling.

Keith admits that discussing a Texan’s land is always an “emotional” and “deeply personal” matter. Over the past five years he says the company has tried to educate the population about the high-speed train and the benefits it will bring to the state, but clearly not everyone is on board.

“We’ve had countless conversations with landowners along the route to understand their property, their specific concerns and its unique characteristics,” he says. “The more we listen and work with landowners, the better the design of the system will be.”

Can it fund itself?

While Texas Central says the project will be investor-owned and not will not seek federal grants or state funding, some analysts have also expressed concern about its ability to pay for itself without taxpayer expenditures.

Among the reasons for this scepticism, according to Baruch Feigenbaum, assistant director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation, a non-profit think tank, is “the presence of low-cost airline flights between Dallas and Houston, lack of conventional rail travel between those cities, low employment and population densities.”

“There is no city pair anywhere in the world with this combination of right distance, demand, topography and growth.”

“There is a significant probability that if this project is built and put into operation, Texas Central will default on its loans, require a taxpayer bailout, or both,” Feigenbaum said in a recent policy brief.

But Keith remains confident the project has a strong business case and will be a success when built. He says Texas Central has spent millions of dollars on the “most sophisticated analysis” of the region to understand the market, Texans’ travel preferences and the type of service the population would use.

A recent travel study commissioned by the company showed that more than 85% of Texans surveyed who have traveled between Greater Houston and North Texas over the last 12 months would use the Texas high-speed train “in the right circumstances”.

Keith adds that the Houston/Dallas route was identified because it is the most “commercially-successful route for high-speed train service in the country”, following an evaluation of more than 90-city pair markets.

“There is no city pair anywhere in the world with this combination of right distance, demand, topography and growth,” he says.

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