While California may have garnered the biggest share of recent media attention for its ambitious high-speed rail plans, it’s not the only place in the country where high-speed rail is gaining momentum. Texas is one of two other states (along with Florida) with current plans to design and implement a significant high-speed project: in this case, a new line connecting Dallas and Houston.
The news that Texas is at the forefront of helping bring new mass transportation technology to the United States may seem surprising at first. Even though light-rail networks in the state’s largest cities have been expanding in recent years, urban centers still tend to be very car-oriented, and there is little intercity rail traffic.
But in these seeming drawbacks, supporters of the new line see significant potential. The metropolitan areas of Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth are among those with the fastest rates of population growth nationally (in 2013, the two cities ranked first and third, respectively). Additionally, these large populations interact regularly, with the air routes between the two cities being among the country’s busiest. A high-speed line could, therefore, see plenty of air traffic diverted to rail.
As plans for the line move forward, here are five other important things to know about the proposed Texas Central High-Speed Railway.
1.The project will be privately funded.
Texas Central officials have declared that the project will be privately funded, and that no public funding will be required to subsidize its operational costs, though they are not ruling out the possibility of taking advantage of federal tax-exempt financing opportunities geared towards large infrastructure projects. Instead, the company plans to issue bonds to private investors, and to use ticket revenue, passenger amenity charges, and transit-oriented development around its stations to earn back its investment.
A major goal behind this type of financial model is to avoid the additional regulation and bureaucracy that can come along with accepting federal funding, which often ends up drastically slowing progress, something that California’s high-speed line is currently experiencing. If the Houston-Dallas line is able to secure sufficient private financing, the project would be one of the first successful private passenger rail initiatives in recent American history.
2.The Houston-Dallas corridor is ideally suited to high-speed rail.
High-speed rail projects have been shown to be most effective for journeys between 100 and 500 miles. The distance between Houston and Dallas is 230 miles, placing it at the “sweet spot” in the middle of the range. In addition, the land between the two urban centers is largely flat with a very low population density, facilitating real estate acquisition and construction of the route. No massive rights of way will be required: about 100 feet at any given point is the maximum that the high-speed corridor will need, roughly equivalent to the width of an average two-lane farm-to-market road.
3.The trains will be modeled on Japan’s famous bullet trains.
The Central Japan Railway Company (known as JR Central) is serving as a promotional and technical partner for the Texas Central High-Speed Railway. If the project moves forward, JR Central would play an advisory role in the operation of the system, as well as sell its trains to Texas Central. These trains — Shinkansen trains, informally referred to as bullet trains — have been in operation in Japan since the 1960s. Today, they whisk passengers on the 300-mile journey between Tokyo and Osaka in just 90 minutes. Additionally, since the system launched in Japan, not a single fatality has been recorded.
4.Noise impact will be limited.
Opponents of the high-speed Houston-Dallas line cite potential noise impact as an important point of concern, but not only are the Shinkansen trains fast and safe, they’re also quiet. Today’s Shinkansen N700 technology is specially designed to diminish external noise as much as possible through features like quiet train covers, drive systems, and flooring material. Texas Central expects the noise of its trains to top out at around 65 decibels; in comparison, diesel trucks routinely hit 85 decibels, and tractors can be as loud as 100 decibels.
5.Station placement could be an issue.
While planning for the line has made some impressive progress so far, it has not been without setbacks. Recently, after an intensive corridor analysis, the Federal Railroad Administration has effectively ruled out the possibility of placing a terminal directly in downtown Houston. The decision was based on environmental impacts which would result in higher per-mile costs, making a downtown station too expensive for the project to be economically viable.
This could be a concern, since high-speed rail is typically most effective when stations are centrally located and easy to access by a variety of modes of transport. If a station was located outside downtown Houston, for example, at the intersection of Interstate 610 and US 290, the current proposed location, a new connection to public transit would need to be created. Either an extension of the local light-rail system in cooperation with Houston Metro or a new rapid bus corridor would need to be built. However, Texas Central remains confident that even a terminal located outside the city will still prove very popular with potential passengers.