TX: Amtrak is taking the reins of Texas' bullet train plan. Is a Houston-Dallas rail line in the cards?

April 23, 2024
Officials are studying the possibility of bullet trains between Houston and Dallas, as part of an overall rail renaissance in the United States, prompted by federal investment in transportation.

Apr. 22—For more than 30 years, politicians and business leaders have promised that Houstonians will be able to get to Dallas in less than two hours via high-speed rail. That promise is somehow closer than ever and yet still so far away.

After a decade of a private firm driving the discussion — and sewing deep opposition in rural parts of Texas — national passenger rail firm Amtrak is taking control. Officials are studying the possibility of bullet trains between Houston and Dallas, as part of an overall rail renaissance in the United States, prompted by federal investment in transportation.

"It is not a done deal yet, and we still have some hurdles to overcome," said Andy Byford, senior vice president of high speed rail programs for Amtrak.

Byford, a big backer of passenger rail who is credited with restoring and improving train service in London, Sydney and New York, told a Texas rail conference in mid-April that the U.S. remains the outlier in offering convenient, fast intercity rail, but changing that cannot happen immediately.

What's clear, Byford said, is the country is facing an inflection point where it can make a decision to improve rail, or not.

"I think time is of the essence," he said. "The alternative is to condemn Americans to ever more crowded interstates... To condemn taxpayers to paying for ever more wider highways."

With Amtrak taking the reins, for now, of a Texas bullet train project, here's some of the issues that will determine whether what's been discussed in the past becomes the future way for thousands to travel between Houston and Dallas, at a probable cost of more than $30 billion.

Is this an Amtrak project now?

Amtrak is studying the project, and if it is financially feasible, Amtrak officials might propose the high-speed rail as part of their long-term strategy.

At this point, it is identical to the project proposed by Texas Central Partners more than a decade ago that relies on Japanese-designed Shinkansen bullet trains running along new tracks mostly following an electrical utility corridor between a site on the southern edge of downtown Dallas and the current site of Northwest Mall at Loop 610 and U.S. 290 in Houston. A stop is planned in the Roans Prairie area near Bryan-College Station.

Trains would take about 90 minutes to make the roughly 240-mile trip, which would make it the fastest way to get between the metros if you factor the additional time needed to arrive for airline flights.

Over the next few weeks, potentially months, Amtrak will continue studying the economic and environmental realties of high-speed rail between Houston and Dallas, using everything compiled by Texas Central Partners.

"We are taking our time to look through the cost estimates," Byford said.

That viability needs to be considered post-pandemic, he said, when early analysis indicates less business use for the train but more leisure use by visitors who might want to travel easily between Texas cities.

"The business case is stronger than ever," Byford told rail conference attendees, saying later "I really do think it is viable."

Byford has met with Dallas officials about Amtrak's proposal, which he said remains supported in the metro area.

He confirmed he has yet to speak to Houston Mayor John Whitmire. While the project enjoyed vocal support from former Mayor Sylvester Turner, Whitmire has not championed it as forcefully.

Asked during a campaign debate in October about innovative projects, Whitmire said his mayoral focus would be on day-to-day transportation issues, such as road conditions.

What happened to Texas Central?

The company still exists in some form. It does not have board officers or much staff, but on paper it is still a company working with Amtrak to verify some of its previous studies and maintain the work it is has done in the past.

Michael Bui, who specializes in corporate restructuring for his company, FTI Consulting in Houston, is the company's chief executive.

Since mid-2023, however, the company has made almost no public statements about any progress or updates other than to claim it was still working on the project.

So who owns what?

Byford said nondisclosure agreements between Amtrak and Texas Central limit what he can say, declining to elaborate on how Amtrak will compensate Texas Central or its overseers for previous work, possibly purchase the land it has acquired or has agreements to purchase and other details.

For now, Texas Central still owns or has agreements to buy about 25% of the parcels needed. In the past, the company has said those parcels represent 30% of the right of way needed in terms of acreage.

The remaining property, Byford said, would be acquired through purchases — with eminent domain used "as absolutely a last resort."

There's still a lot of opposition, right?

There is quite a bit of organized and engaged opposition. Texans Against High-Speed Rail, along with Reroute The Route, remain opposed to the plan as presented. The groups represent rural landowners who since the project was proposed have raised concerns about how the tracks would divide their land and create noise and lighting concerns.

That opposition has led to challenges to most claims Texas Central has made since 2016 related to the project's environmental impact, ridership projections and financing.

As Amtrak entered discussions with the company, Texans Against High-Speed Rail took a new look at the documents and recently raised issues about the involvement of foreign investors in Texas Central's finances.

Following on those concerns, opponents, such as Waller County Judge Trey Duhon, urged Amtrak to rethink thedeal.

"We understand that high-speed rail is a priority for the Biden Administration, but given the serious environmental justice issues and alleged improper handling of foreign financial backing of this project, we strongly advise the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Biden Administration to pick a different horse," Duhon said in a statement provided by Texans Against High-Speed Rail.

Byford said his years of rail development have led him to believe the project could be viable, but he acknowledges that requires rethinking some elements of how to fund the project — including the need for public money.

"It is naïve to think it will all come from the private purse," Byford told reporters during a discussion of the line.

Hit pitch, however, is growth in both Houston and Dallas, increased travel between them and the opportunity to make that trip faster and easier can sway local, state and federal officials — many of whom have been steadfastly opposed to any public funds.

"If we can pull it off, it will be an absolute jewel in Texas' crown," Byford said, noting the convenience of a 90-minute trip. "... It will be the envy of America."


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