We're sure you've heard about the plan to build a high-speed rail line running from Houston to Dallas, an ambitious plan that would see bullet trains hurtling back and forth over 240 miles between the two cities, with passengers arriving within just 90 minutes.
But one of the big questions about the controversial project is what people would do once they arrived at the proposed stations for the line, either just outside of downtown Dallas or at the spot where Northwest Mall currently sits here in Houston, since neither city has the kind of public transportation systems that make rail travel such a workable option for those living on the East Coast or in Europe.
Well, now there's an answer: Amtrak.
Once the Houston-to-Dallas line is built and running, passengers will be able to ride the bullet train and then connect to other routes to continue their journeys through the national train service. People will also be able to purchase tickets for both the high-speed rail line and the national lines through the Amtrak reservation system, according to a release issued by Texas Central, the company building the bullet train, on Friday.
This is a pretty remarkable get for Texas Central, since it will help tie the line—the Japanese Shinkansen N700 bullet train is not designed to hook up with any other type of track directly—into the fabric of public transportation by allowing its passengers to go from the bullet train to Amtrak trains the same way that Greyhound and United Airlines both partner with the national rail service right now. “This agreement is another important step in the progress of the Texas bullet train,” Texas Central President Tim Keith said in a statement. “It gives both local and interstate travelers more options and ease of travel not previously available by intercity passenger trains in Texas.”
Stephen Gardner, Amtrak’s executive vice president and chief commercial officer, noted in the statement that this deal will help Amtrak finally cover a significant gap in its services, the one between Houston and Dallas.
“Amtrak supports the development of high-speed train service throughout the United States as part of a national passenger rail system, capable of meeting the nation’s transportation needs,” Gardner said. “When Texas Central’s high-speed line begins operation, the joint ticketing arrangement will benefit Amtrak customers who currently cannot connect by train between Texas’ two largest markets."
Amtrak gets something out of this too. The national rail company has the lines and systems for ticketing and running a rail service that Texas Central currently lacks, but it is also chronically underfunded and has aging, decaying infrastructure issues that can never quite be dealt with since Congress continually kicks in enough money to keep the company on life support, but not much else. Amtrak hasn't even offered a route between Houston and Dallas since 1995.
Still, with the growing populations of both cities, the sheer amount of traffic on the roads between them, and the expense of flying, Amtrak officials cannot have missed that a high-speed line between Houston and Dallas would be a smart idea, but considering the obstacles—land to be bought, the sheer amount of funding required to even attempt such a project and the fact that it would be in the Lone Star State where public transportation leaves much to be desired, all paired with their lack of funding—it's understandable that they didn't bother. However, this deal will allow Amtrak to extend its reach, without having to deal with any of those issues directly.
The Amtrak deal is a good sign, but it's not a promise the bullet train will actually happen, as anyone who remembers the failed attempt to build the same line back in the 1990s will know. To pull this off, Texas Central officials still have a lot to accomplish. For one thing, the Federal Railroad Administration is in the process of reviewing its final environmental impact study of the proposed route, and a lot will hinge on the findings in that report.
There's also that controversy we mentioned before.
Ever since it was announced in 2014 the project has sparked strong pushback from rural land owners and officials who live along the corridor of the proposed line. They even formed Texans Against High-Speed Rail, a group that has been working steadily to block the plan ever since.
These opponents of the plan have long insisted that the state doesn't need the high-speed line, that it will ruin the farm and ranch land it will run through, and could possibly hurt the business in small towns that will be just a blur as the trains speed at 200 mph between Houston and Dallas. They also maintain that there's no way Texas Central, a private company, will ultimately be able to raise enough capital to construct the project, which estimates say will cost at least $15 billion, and that there is no way the state will not end up on the hook for either funding the rail line completion or its maintenance in the end.
Texas Central officials have continually insisted the line won't be the problem that opponents fear it will become. Company officials have long maintained that they will not take any government funds, but with a caveat that this doesn't mean they won't be exploring all forms of capital available to private companies, including federal loans. They also continue to say the bullet train will not be as invasive as many rural landowners have feared, and that government entities along the line will get enough tax dollars from the company to make it worthwhile—even though the trains won't actually stop anywhere in between, aside from a third station in Brazos Valley. They estimate the line will pump $36 billion into the state economy and will provide about 10,000 construction jobs and about 1,500 permanent ones to run and maintain the stations and the line.
Along the way some landowners have softened and opted to sell in the past year or so, but the opposition remains pretty strong. In the last two state legislative sessions, lawmakers from rural areas, including some that were in the crosshairs for the route, have proposed legislation to block Texas Central from using eminent domain to force the sale of any land where they can't make a deal, and while the bills have not made it through the legislature in either session, the odds are high that we'll see them take another crack at getting such legislation when the state legislature convenes next year.
So overall, the fantasy of boarding a train and zipping up to Dallas whenever you like is still a long way from becoming a reality. But on the upside, if Texas Central officials do manage to get the land, the funds, the government approval, the construction and public approval that they need, they'll have a partner in Amtrak whenever the trains actually do start running.