Biting the Bullet (Train)

Has Eckels finally found the shekels?

By John Lomax February 2, 2014 Published in the February 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

You can try to deny it, ignore it, go through life wishing it wasn’t so, but the fact of the matter is that Dallas exists. Equally undeniable: It exists not far away, a proximity that Houstonians find understandably unsettling, rather like Big D is invading our personal space. Equally unsettling: you will probably have to visit the place at some point. Maybe you have family up there, or one of your college buddies is tying the knot. Maybe your company has a Dallas branch and you’re needed for a shareholders’ meeting, a business lunch, perhaps a prayer breakfast. (Somebody is always having a prayer breakfast in Dallas.) 

In the not too distant future, you could find yourself waking up in Houston, lunching at El Fenix in Dallas, and back in time for a 3 p.m. gut-ache. Think of it.

No, there’s no getting around the occasional jaunt to the Big D, but how best to make the 240-mile jaunt is a matter of eternal dispute, one that may become even more disputatious in the years ahead. As of now, we can spend what a recent search pegged as $168 minimum for round-trip airfare and get there in about an hour, not including airport travel time or the time it takes for Hobby TSA to rerun our bag through the scanner. Or—we can jump in our 2001 Camry and barrel up I-45, a three-and-a-half-hour trip that will set us back just $75, including wear and tear on our vehicle, which is negligible in the case of a 2001 Camry, as it cannot be worn or torn any further. In the latter case, we have our own car for getting around Dallas, a necessity. (Yes, DART is ahead of Metro, but let’s not get carried away.)  

In other words, irrespective of mode of transport, we’re looking at roughly a four-hour trip to Dallas, and our only choice, it seems, is whether to pay $75 or $168. It’s bad enough we have to go there—do we need the false dichotomies too?  

But imagine this. Imagine you could blast off from, say, Market Square, glide across the blackland prairies of East Texas at 205 mph, and arrive in the bleak environs of Dealey Plaza in under 90 minutes? All with no TSA probing or white-knuckle takeoffs or jackknifed 18-wheelers? What if you could while away the time stretched out with your tablet, or gabbing with friends and family, or handling clients on your phone, while sipping old vine Zinfandel to your heart’s content? 

Well, that future may well be nigh. Former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels claims that his Texas Central Railway group will have—God-willing and the crick don’t rise—a high-speed link up and running in seven years, with a Japanese-built Shinkansen bullet-train car to boot, available to travelers for about 70 to 80 percent of the cost of airfare. In the not too distant future, you could find yourself waking up in Houston, lunching at El Fenix in Dallas, and back in time for a 3 p.m. gut-ache. Think of it.

One who positively chortles at that prospect is Peter LeCody, president of Texas Rail Advocates, a nonprofit that advocates for both freight and passenger rail. No, he literally chortles.

 “Hoho, this is going to be a tremendous economic development tool for Texas,” he says over the phone from his Dallas office. “It is going to be a pipeline like we haven’t seen before. Simply put, it is going to change the way we travel here.”

Okay, but what’s taken so long? Didn’t Ann Richards try to get this done in the early ’90s? Oh, that’s right—Southwest Airlines lobbied hard against the eminently sensible idea of linking “the triangle” of DFW, Houston, and Austin and San Antonio. Wait, won’t that happen again?

In fact, as Eckels pointed out at a panel convened last fall by the Texas Tribune, air carriers like American and United have been downright supportive of the TCR plan, while Southwest has stayed uncharacteristically neutral. Why? Because in October of this year, the last remnants of the 1979 Wright Amendment—designed to protect DFW Airport’s regional dominance by requiring competing Love Field air carriers to only fly to Texas destinations and surrounding states—will expire. Southwest will henceforth be able to fly to any domestic destination from its Dallas hub.  No longer will the HOU-DAL route be the bread and butter (chips and salsa?) of Southwest’s very existence. Still, even as the airline lobby recedes, a potential new foe emerges: the Buc-ee’s lobby. It is not to be expected that the beaver will take the loss of I-45 patronage lying down. (Making the convenience store an official partner might be a suitable peace offering, however, in which case there’d be no other bullet train service on the planet with sparklier toilets.) 

Eckels is not the only heavyweight involved in the TCR, by the way. In September, the TCR brought in J. Thomas Schieffer, the former US Ambassador to Australia and Japan, who believes it a potential “game-changer” for Texas.  “It will have the same kind of impact on our future that the Interstate Highway System, DFW Airport, and Bush Intercontinental had on our past,” he said upon being hired as a senior advisor to the TCR. “This is something we need to do to guarantee the future prosperity of Texas.”

Future prosperities don’t come cheap. Early estimates for the TCR start at $10 billion. Which brings up another key difference from earlier proposals: the TCR is a private entity backed by a group of Japanese investors who considered 97 possible US rail corridors before fingering Dallas-Houston as the one with the most profit potential. Eckels claims that the dirt will be flying by 2016 and the bullet-trains humming by 2021.

“This will be the first high-speed passenger rail service in America,” LeCody confidently predicts. “My feeling is that we will beat California to the punch.”

Well, all right, but when can we expect a bullet train to some place we actually want to go? Cold logic may nod approvingly at a Dallas line, but the soul quivers in anticipation (and the liver quakes in fear) of a bullet train to the Big Easy.

LeCody will only say that there’s serious talk of linking Houston, Austin, and San Antonio, thanks to a sudden belief in “multimodal solutions” by the Department of Transportation that he never thought he’d live to see.

As LeCody puts it, “They finally realized you can’t keep pouring concrete and asphalt forever.” 

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