Houston-to-Dallas High-Speed Rail Project May Hold Lessons for San Antonio

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Courtesy / Texas Central

High-speed trains like the N700 Shinkansen could take passengers from Dallas to Houston in less than 90 minutes.

While a San Antonio-to-Austin rail line remains an unrealized dream, a high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas is much closer to connecting the state’s two largest metropolitan areas.

The 240-mile route would take riders from Houston to Dallas – with a stop near College Station – in 87 minutes, said Holly Reed, the managing director of external affairs of Texas Central. Texas Central is the private company that has been raising capital, purchasing land, and securing contracts for rail line construction and high-speed trains for the Houston-Dallas project.

Texas Central is still in the process of buying land; only about 30 to 40 percent of the land needed has been purchased. The total price tag has yet to be tallied, but Reed said the construction for the rail line alone – not including land purchases or the train system – would cost $14 billion. The project is completely funded by private investors with no state or federal dollars involved.

Reed told the Rivard Report that the Texas company expects to put shovel to dirt by the end of 2020.

“It’s about a five- to six-year build, which means you’d be riding the train in 2026,” Reed said.

The idea from the high-speed rail effort came from ex-military members, most of who were not Texans, Reed explained. They rode high-speed trains in foreign countries, particularly Asia, and said, “Why don’t we have this?” she said. 

“There’s a sweet spot for high-speed trains, and it’s too short to fly and too long to drive,” Reed said. “This is 240 miles apart, which is right in that strike zone.”

Not only are the two cities separated by an ideal distance, the topography of Texas makes it a less challenging project to build compared to, for example, California.

“It’s straight,” Reed said. “It’s flat. There’s 500 feet of elevation change. There’s no mountains, no major bodies of water. So the cost side of the equation works – fewer engineering challenges.”

In South Central Texas, 20 state legislators have revived talk of a San Antonio to Austin passenger rail line. Area lawmakers signed a letter in August asking Transportation Committee chair and state Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg) to study the possibility of rail between the two cities.

 

On Wednesday, rail in Texas was the topic of a panel discussion that included Reed, State Rep. Ray Lopez (D-San Antonio), and Tyson Moeller, general director of network development for Union Pacific railroad, at a San Antonio Chamber of Commerce transportation committee meeting.

Hearing about Texas Central’s project intrigued Lopez, who served as a member of City Council and the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization when the Lone Star Rail project was being discussed. He was especially interested to hear Texas Central’s timeline projections for completing the rail line.

“In the realm of construction, it’s just around the corner,” Lopez said. “We may be riding rail between Dallas and Houston in six to seven years. In construction years, that’s very, very quick.”

Gurwitz said he doubts sufficient political will and funding exists to fund a high-speed rail project connecting San Antonio to a city such as Houston or Monterrey, Mexico. But some form of passenger rail could still be the answer to connecting San Antonio and Austin; the local chambers of commerce recognize the importance of alleviating congestion on the Interstate 35 corridor between the two cities and making San Antonio an easier destination to travel to in general, Gurwitz said.

“The San Antonio Economic Development Foundation [is] going through a strategic planning process where they’re looking at the region, including Austin, on how we work together and that includes transportation,” Gurwitz said.

“ … You think of talent pool, people being able to commute, to fill jobs in tech industries, in cyber security, [at] Toyota. If we can make mobility easier and more efficient, we solve a lot of problems of economic growth and economic mobility in our region as well.”

The cost of rail has been a significant obstacle. California’s controversial high-speed rail line connecting the Los Angeles area to San Francisco is now estimated to cost $79 billion, with a segment between Bakersfield and Merced said to cost $12.4 billion. The price tag for the Texas Central rail line is $14 billion, but that doesn’t include buying the land on which to build the line, Reed said. It also doesn’t include the train system itself, which will be purchased from the Japanese company that makes that nation’s bullet trains. 

Still, the possibility of connecting Austin and San Antonio via rail is consistently on people’s minds, Reed said.

“There’s not a speech that I give that somebody doesn’t ask, ‘When are you going to Austin and when are you going to San Antonio?’” she said.

“The more data you have, the farther along you will be [in order] to be next. You know, understanding … people are making that trip, understand how frequently they’re doing it, who’s doing it? Because that’s what we did in our feasibility work.”

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