If you’ve given up on the Houston-to-Dallas bullet train—letting go of your dreams of traveling those 240 interminable miles in a mere 90 minutes—well, that’s understandable. The first groundbreaking date set by Texas Central, the company behind the project, came and went two years ago, and today nobody seems to know when construction is set to start, if ever. What’s going on? There’s been so much spin coming from so many sides, it can be hard to tell, but here are a few things to know:
The dream of never having to drive to Dallas again is still very much alive.
The last time a company attempted to construct a bullet train in Texas, back in the 1990s, that effort went down in a ball of flames, killed by the combined efforts of landowners, lawmakers, and airline lobbyists who didn’t want new competition. The project collapsed within a few years, despite the involvement of a former Texas lieutenant governor and $70 million in private investments.
This time around things are different. Texas Central—founded specifically to build this line, in partnership with the Central Japan Railway Company, creators of that country’s famed shinkansen train—has shown itself to be tenacious, with real staying power. Since the project was announced back in 2012, the company has been duking it out with opponents in the courts, the state legislature, and Texans Against High-Speed Rail, while securing about $100 million in private investments, along with a $300 million loan from Japanese lenders.
Holly Reed, Texas Central’s managing director of external affairs, assures Houstonia that this, the first project of its kind in the United States, will happen, darn it. “It’s a big idea,” she says, “and it takes a big vision to see that it can be done, but we have that.”
What about all those announcements touting 2019 construction plans?
Reed says that Texas Central is indeed prepared to start construction this year, as soon as two necessary permits are issued. The thing is, before issuing them, the Federal Railroad Administration has to conduct an environmental-impact study and create safety regulations specifically for the project, as none currently exist for trains that travel at speeds of more than 150 mph. And the agency has released its own timeline for completing those tasks: by March 2020.
Nobody really won or lost during the state's 86th Biennial Legislative Session.
Lawmakers have waged serious attacks on Texas Central during the past three biennial sessions of the Texas Legislature, the last of which brought the fiercest fight yet. The company faced the most bills ever filed against it, with proposed legislation attempting to limit its use of eminent domain, and even a 2020–21 budget rider that would have forbidden it from working with TxDOT until the courts made an unappealable ruling on whether it could use eminent domain at all. Those efforts failed. “We would have faced years of delays if that budget rider had made it through,” says Reed, “but it didn’t, and neither did any other legislation that was aimed at us.”
Meanwhile, Kyle Workman, founder and head of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, also declared victory, citing the fact that no legislation that would have benefited Texas Central went through. “We were playing defense, and that was all we had to do,” he says. Now TAHSR is tracking cases in various counties and preparing to continue the legal wrangling in court. “Texas Central keeps talking about how everything is fine, but it’s propaganda they’re just putting out, so the money won’t dry up,” Workman says. “There’s still a long way to go before this is over.”
What’s a realistic timeline at this point?
Originally the bullet train was slated to start operating by 2021—which, naw. At this point Texas Central reps will only say that it will take five to six years from the start of construction for things to get up and running. Meanwhile the project continues to move forward. As of now landmen have secured right-of-way for about 30 percent of the 10-county route.
“Nobody wants these things across their land, we understand that, but the state is growing. This kind of infrastructure has to be built,” Reed says. “Some people still think all Texans ride their horses to work. Once this train starts running they won’t think that anymore; it will show people Texas is more than that stereotype.”