Texas is closer than ever to building the first high-speed train in the United States, thanks to President Donald Trump’s fascination with these transportation projects and a well-timed pitch to his administration.
Now developers nationwide are looking to the privately owned Texas Central Railway as a test case of what can get done with Trump in the White House.
Former Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr., a member of the company’s board of directors, met recently with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in Washington. He wasn’t seeking any of the taxpayer-funded grants sought by high-speed rail projects in California and the Northeast.
What the $10 billion Texas Central Railway really needs is a green light from the agency Chao oversees.
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“It was an opportunity to make a first impression,” said Tim Keith, president of Texas Central Railway.
The meeting clearly stuck. Soon after, Chao mentioned the Texas Central Railway at the National Governors Association winter conference as an example of the kind of “very impressive” project the administration is interested in.
The question now is whether private investment — coupled with regulatory relief — is a model the Trump administration could use to finance and expedite his promised $1 trillion infrastructure push, and not just in Texas.
The president has said his plan will include both private and public funding. But there appears to be little appetite in Congress to spend big on infrastructure, especially as Republicans are preparing to cut taxes.
Texas Central’s entrepreneurial approach, which neatly sidesteps the politically charged appropriations process on Capitol Hill, could be a faster way.
“Texas does big things. This is a big idea,” said Keith. “We’re working hard to transform transportation in America and change the way public infrastructure is conceived, sponsored and financed.”
Texas Central’s plan is to build a private 205-mph bullet train that covers the 240-mile trip between Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth using Japanese technology.
Trains would depart every 30 minutes, 18 hours a day. A one-way trip would take 90 minutes, compared with five hours to drive or about three and a half hours by air, if you include all the transit and security, Keith said.
Keith isn’t ready to announce pricing, but he said tickets would be sold on a demand-based model similar to that used by airlines and hotels, varying by date and time.
He expects tickets will cost less than the $500 price of a business class round-trip airfare but more than the estimated $270 cost of driving the same route, which he calculates at 55 cents a mile for gas and wear and tear.
The project must overcome several regulatory hurdles at the federal level before it can proceed to the construction phase. A series of environmental reviews already are underway, with the process expected to wrap up by early next year. The company also is seeking a new safety rule that will allow its trains to operate at up to 205 mph.
“There’s no rules set yet for driving a train 200 miles an hour in the United States,” Keith said. “We’re having those rules written for our system.”
The primary regulator in charge of the environmental reviews and the new safety rule is the Federal Railroad Administration, an agency within Chao’s Department of Transportation.
Keith said McLane’s meeting with Chao went well and that other representatives of the Texas Central Railway had met with her several other times.
The Texas Central Railway project also appeared on a draft list of 50 priority infrastructure projects compiled for the Trump transition team and obtained by McClatchy.
Even though the Texas project will not seek grants, Keith said the company might pursue federal loan programs or tax credits if Trump offered them.
“We’re very interested to see what opportunities the Trump administration creates,” he said.
Trump has expressed particular interest in bullet trains.
At a private meeting reported by The Wall Street Journal this week, Trump mentioned building new high-speed railroads as part of his infrastructure push. He also spoke to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month about that country’s bullet train technology and bemoaned the lack of high-speed rail in the U.S. at a meeting with airline executives.
“You go to China, you go to Japan, they have fast trains all over the place. We don’t have one. I don’t want to compete with your business,” Trump said to laughter at the meeting with the executives on Feb. 9, “but we don’t have one fast train.”
The Federal Railroad Administration has standards only for trains that operate at a maximum of 150 mph, and Amtrak’s Acela trains in the Northeast are the only ones that travel that fast.
California is building a 220-mph high-speed rail system, but that project has been delayed by political opposition. Its trains also have to meet more rigorous federal standards for crash protection because they will share tracks with commuter trains, Amtrak and some freight.
By building a self-contained system where trains will not intersect with street traffic or encounter slower trains, the Texas project can employ off-the-shelf technology in use in Japan for more than 50 years.
“It’s going to be a lot easier than the California project,” said Peter LeCody, president of Texas Rail Advocates and chairman of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, both advocacy groups that support the Texas project. “They’ll have a little harder way to go in California than in Texas.”
Florida is getting into the high-speed rail game, too. The Brightline is scheduled to open this summer, connecting Miami with West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. Eventually, the train will reach Orlando.
Like Texas Central, Florida’s project is paid for with private funds. However, its trains have a top speed of 125 mph, well below the speeds envisioned in California and Texas.
High-speed rail could make sense in certain densely populated corridors in the U.S., such as between D.C. and Boston or Chicago and Detroit, or along the front range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, said Shailen Bhatt, executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation.
“It can work, but you’re not going to get high-speed rail around the country because it just doesn’t pencil as a deal. You’ve got to have a revenue stream for a long period of time” to entice investors, he said.
High-speed rail has been a topic in Texas for 30 years, but Keith thinks its moment has come.
“What’s happening in Texas is private entrepreneurs are saying, look there’s demand, there’s pent-up demand,” he said. “We can meet the demand.”
The biggest obstacles for the railway could be back home in Texas. Some landowners along the route want to derail the project, and they have help from allies in the state Legislature.
“You’re talking about property rights. In Texas, we love our land,” said LeCody with Texas Rail Advocates.
LeCody said Texas was changing and needed a transportation system that addressed road congestion and population growth.
“We’re such a growing state,” he said. “We’ve got to learn how to move people from point A to point B without highways.”
The project has held hundreds of public meetings and has acquired about 30 percent of the property it needs.
Bhatt, however, cautioned against easing regulations too much in the interest of moving projects along quickly to satisfy private investors.
“People say it takes us too long to deliver projects,” Bhatt said. “The reason it takes us so long is we’re preserving clean water, we’re preserving clean air, we’re preserving property rights. And that’s why there’s regulations. And yes, we can do things faster, but we’re not going to build things like they do in China because we don’t have a society like in China.”