High speed rail in Texas: options

I already looked at the sorry condition of megaregional transit in Texas. But that could change quickly. At the megaregion conference, politicians – Republicans and Democrats — from Houston, Austin, Fort Worth, and College Station all called for connecting Texas with intercity passenger rail. They also agreed that highway-centric state government needs to pay more attention to rail, and indeed, TxDOT has created a (tiny) rail division. There’s a sense that a political consensus is building for megaregional transit. There are good ideas. But we’re a long way from building anything.

On a local level, political consensus is already showing results. Twenty years ago, Texas had no rail transit systems. Today, it has five (Dallas light rail, commuter rail, and streetcar, Houston light rail, and Galveston streetcar.) Both of those light rail system are in the process of massive expansion, Austin is about to open its first rail line, and Denton is building a diesel light rail line connecting to DART. In the planning stages: commuter rail in Fort Worth, a second commuter rail line in Dallas, commuter rail between Austin and San Antonio, commuter rail in Houston, and streetcars in Dallas, Fort Worth, and Austin. (San Antonio is also in the early stages of a light rail/streetcar study.) Thus, within another decade, we could have 15 rail transit systems:

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As we’ve seen across the United States, local transit strengthens intercity rail. It’s a feeder system, it shares urban alignments and terminal stations, and it builds a transit habit. So all these regional projects can begin to have a megaregional impact.

So what kind of system might link these cities?

The first option is high speed rail, with a top speed of 150 mph or more. That’s Amtrak’s Acela, Japan’s Shinkansen, France’s TGV, or Germany’s ICE. At this speed, trains need a dedicated, grade-separated line with minimal curves. Where existing freight lines are straight, you could lay new tracks alongside, but most lines are curvy and go right through the middle of small towns. Freeway medians are more promising, but any route is likely to include so new greenfield alignments. 150+ mph also means electric power: diesel can’t handle the speed. All of this adds up to fast and reliable trips (Houston to Dallas in 2:00, Houston to Austin in 1:30) but also to a big price tag.

Texas got close to full high speed rail 15 years ago with the “Texas TGV.” The initial proposal called a for a triangle connecting Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio, with additional stations near Austin, Waco, and College Station.

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By the time the Texas TGV project died due to opposition from airlines, rural landowners, and small government conservatives, the plan had contracted to a “T,” reducing the miles of track required. That idea is being pushed today by the private (but politically broad-based) Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation. It’s not as direct as the triangle, but at 200 mph, that doesn’t matter that much. There’s also been another proposal — a constricted triangle — but ultimately the route choice doesn’t change the overall magnitude of the cost or travel times.

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These proposals resemble California’s high speed rail plan. That will cost $40 billion for 800 miles and carry 247,000 daily trips. Frances’ SNCF recently estimated $13.8 billion for a 350-mile Dallas-San Antonio line (for a 1:50 end-to-end travel time) with 34,000 daily trips.

There’s no doubt we can afford high speed rail: Texas spends $5 billion on highways yearly. But it’s not yet clear we have the political will for it. That’s lead some to suggest that we should do what California did 30 years ago: improve regular-speed rail. Conventional passengers trains on tracks shared with freight trains can do 80 mph easily, given straight enough track and/or tilting equipment (like the Talgo trains in use in the Pacific Northwest) they can do 110. That’s not as good as 200, but it comes at a fraction of the capital cost.

The first option might to upgrade the existing Amtrak service. We have 0.9 daily trains from Houston to San Antonio; why not 4? We have 2 daily trains from San Antonio to Dallas; why not 6? This plan, however, has about 200 problems: there are a lot of freight trains to dodge on the same tracks. Even with preferential dispatching, passenger trains take 8 hours from San Antonio to Dallas and 5 hours from Houston to San Antonio, and they run over 30 minutes late about 20% of the time. That’s not going to work. We could upgrade those busy freight lines: add double track and build bypasses around some urban areas. But that doesn’t come cheap: a San Antonio-Austin freight bypass is estimated at $2.4 billion.

But there may be other options: intercity rail lines that don’t carry a lot of freight traffic or that have been abandoned. Here, we have to pay for upgraded track, but on existing trackbed. That’s cheaper than new double track or new lines.

Planning money for one such project – 290 passenger rail — is included in Texas’ request for high speed stimulus funds. Even if those funds aren’t coming to Texas (and I see no cause to be optimistic) TxDOT says they may fund the study with state funds. This would use the Hempstead commuter rail alignment (an existing freight line) from Houston to Hempstead, a Capitol Metro-owned line from Austin to Giddings, and an abandoned rail line from Giddings to Hempstead via Brenham. The Houston to Hempstead line continues to College Station, so that would be an obvious extension, providing Houston to Austin service (the burnt orange line?) and Houston to College Station service (the maroon line?). On the other end, those trains could be extended to Galveston. I’m calling this the Brain Train.

Some rough numbers: 2 1/2 hours from Houston to Austin, 1 1/2 hours Houston to College Station, That’s slightly faster than car, and, given airport security times, about as fast as a plane (but much more comfortable.) Cost: maybe $800 million.

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Ed Emmett – who’s been talking up the 290 project – also suggests another similar project: BNSF has expressed interest in selling its rail line from Houston to Dallas (the one that runs out 290 to Tomball.) In 1936, that line hosted Texas’ first streamlined train, the Sam Houston Zephyr on a 5-hour schedule from Houston to Dallas. With modern equipment and few stops (the only city of note on the way is Corsicana, pop. 24,000), that could be 4 hours, maybe 3:30. That’s car-competitive (and the fact that you can work/eat/sleep on the train is a selling point there), but not airplane-competitive.

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This debate — slow/cheap (aka incremental) vs. fast/expensive (aka ground up) — is going on across the country. The Pacific Northwest and the Midwest have chosen for slow/cheap; California has chosen fast/expensive. The choice is not absolute — Europe has combined the two approaches on the same network, even on the same route. In some cases, where existing rail lines are nearly straight (like Houston-Hempstead), an incremental line could be upgraded to full high speed rail later. There’s no doubt that dedicated means better service, but the cost — and the impacts of new alignments — can be hard to swallow.

This is perhaps the most important decision we have to make, and it comes down to political will. How much are we willing to spend? Do we have statewide leadership (which would make an ambitious project easier) or only regional leadership (which might only be enough to cobble together an incremental approach)? Do we believe in great or in good enough?

In that sense, the discussion about the perfect alignment is premature. The triangle vs. the contracted triangle vs. the T, maglev vs. steel rail, is something that can be figured out in a good study. The fundamental prerequisite is the decision to move forward, the political coalition that will move it forward, and the funding source that will permit it. We have lots of ideas. But ideas are the easy part.

Do you have the will to discuss this in our forums?

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