Is high-speed rail in Texas’ future?

Could be.

A number of signs point to possible success for rail advocates, who for years have been talking up the merits of so-called multimodal transportation planning, but to a mostly unreceptive audience among Texas transportation policymakers.

This month, the U.S. Department of Transportation called for proposals from states and businesses to develop any of 11 federally designated high-speed rail corridors. Proposals are expected across the country, and two of the specified routes run through Texas. One, the Gulf Coast Corridor, enters the state from the southeast and finds its terminus in Houston.

The other route comes in from the north, and runs through Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and more.

No proposals have been made to develop those corridors yet, but U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters was in New York City in recent weeks to urge investors to consider doing just that. The government’s vision is to have private firms partner with state and federal governments to jointly develop the rail lines. Proposals are due by September 2009.

Texas ought to start moving if it wants to take advantage of the federal funds, said Peter LeCody of Texas Rail Advocates, a passenger-rail lobbying group. The federal government is promising an 80-20 match with local or state funds – a nearly unprecedented move for rail, which usually requires a 50 percent contribution from local sources.

Hard to say what if anything may come of this. Certainly, the Obama administration is going to be more interested in exploring and incentivizing transportation initiatives that aren’t just road building and widening. Texas may not be anywhere near the forefront of such thinking, but the allure of federal dollars can make pragmatists, if not converts, of most rail skeptics. And even the Lege seems to be on board with this.

One first step may be as near as January. When lawmakers gather for the 2009 Legislature, one of the many questions they’ll be asked to decide is whether to create a new rail division within the transportation department that could oversee the development of passenger rail lines between Texas’ biggest cities.

Meanwhile, Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, has introduced a bill that would call a vote next fall on amending the state constitution so that high-speed passenger rail facilities could be exempted from property taxes, another sign that the momentum is rolling in passenger rail’s favor.

So the environment is about as favorable as it’s ever been. If we do wind up with a real Governor’s race, maybe we’ll even have a debate on the issue. In the meantime, I’m glad to hear of the possibilities.

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6 Responses to Is high-speed rail in Texas’ future?

  1. Logan Ratner says:

    I seem to remember a previous high-speed rail plan that was killed by a Southwest Airlines lobbying effort. I wonder if this will suffer the same fate. The fact that there seems to be no plan to connect the two corridors seems like a failing on the surface, but it may serve to reduce SWA’s objection. This will be interesting to watch.

  2. Kent from Waco says:

    As much as I like rail, I doubt this makes much sense. This sort of high-speed commuter rail only really makes sense when the destinations are equally accommodating to transit.

    For example, I lived in DC for a spell and at times took the train to NYC for recreation. I lived in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of DC. 3 blocks from my apartment I could hop on the red line (subway) and in 20 minutes with one train change I would be in DC’s union station. I’d ride the escalators up from the subway stop and walk 200′ to the train to NYC. Hop the train and in 3 hours I’d be in Penn Station in Manhattan a short subway ride to wherever I wanted to be. Usually that meant the Y which has nice rooms in midtown.

    The same trip by car would mean congestion, delays, and tolls the entire way with expensive parking hassles in Manhattan. The same trip by plane would mean long taxi or shuttle trips between each airport and downtown.

    Clearly rail is the best way to travel between DC and NYC which is why so many people do it. Turning the existing routes into high speed rail from DC to NYC and onwards to Boston makes a lot of sense because so many people would be served and benefit.

    All the high speed rail routes in Europe and Japan are similar in that all the destination points in each city are heavily covered by transit and it is easy to get around in all those cities sans auto. Not so in any city in Texas. How many Texans living in DFW, Austin, San Antonio, or Houston live within easy transit distance of a central rail station? Not many I suspect. And fewer still of the business travelers who would normally make up the bulk of travelers on those sorts of routes. And then how are they going to get to their destinations once they arrive in their destination city?

    I just don’t see that many people traveling from central Dallas to Central Austin and San Antonio. More likely they are traveling trips like Frisco to Round Rock or someplace along the 1604 in suburban NW San Antonio. Places with no existing transit to speak of. Or certainly not transit with convenient and frequent enough service to be useful to the business traveler.

    The kind of rail that would make more sense would be heavy rail service along the heavy commuting routes. Like the Katy Freeway and I-45 in Houston. Heavy rail (not light rail) that shares no rights of way with auto traffic so that the service is fast, reliable and independent of traffic.

  3. Mike Harrington says:

    “Heavy rail (not light rail) that shares no rights of way with auto traffic so that the service is fast, reliable and independent of traffic.”

    Actually, light rail can function well as “heavy” rail. “Light” rail is actually a misnomer. The difference between light rail and heavy rail is only the length of trains. Light rail means trains no more than a city block long. Salt Lake City has already violated that definition, since they are running five-car trains on their Sandy line at rush hour.

    The French motrice is probably more descriptive. The equivalent in English is motor coach. Nowadays, in French-speaking countries it means an electric rail car where are wheels are self-propelled.

    There is no reason, other than the length of the existing station platforms, that MetroRail could not function in a commuter rail capacity. The MetroRail Siemens cars have the same top speed as the Dallas Kinkisharyo cars, 65 MPH. The are practically the same weight. MetroRail cars weigh 99,000 pounds and the DART cars weight 107,000 pounds.

    Houston’s cars are actually a better design. Since 60% of the space area is low-flooring, it is easier for them to accommodate bicycles and wheelchairs than the Dallas cars.

    The advantage of light rail cars is that all wheels are self-propelled. Since there is no locomotive pulling a train of cars, “light” rail can scale the same grades automobiles do. Here’s the Jupiter Road overpass on Dallas’ Garland light rail line. Show me a railroad locomotive pulling a train that can scale this:

    DART Garland Line

    Light rail is not, by definition, co-mingled with traffic. In Dallas, only about 10% of the track miles are in traffic. Portland has only about 25% in traffic. St. Louis has none of its 45 miles of light rail in Missouri and Illinois in traffic.

    Houston’s problem is that it only recently became a big city. All the older towns, and Dallas was a rather big city when Houston was smaller than San Antonio, had major rail/road grade separation projects after the First World War. Houston doesn’t have any significant amount of grade separation. So, whether you’re discussing “heavy” or “light” rail, the only way you could get safe suburban rail is by setting aside freeway lanes or elevating rail lines over freeways. Diesel locomotives would not be able to handle elevation, because they don’t have the traction that electromagnetic light rail cars do to handle the grades.

  4. Temple Houston says:

    I’m afraid I don’t understand the reason for not connecting Houston to Dallas and San Antonio-Austin.

  5. Mike Harrington says:

    “I’m afraid I don’t understand the reason for not connecting Houston to Dallas and San Antonio-Austin.”
    Fifty years ago there was frequent train service between Houston and Dallas and several trains each day to San Antonio and Austin.

    Southwest Airlines has been the main culprit here.

    Short-haul air service, i.e., under 500 miles, is insane because aircraft use so much fuel taking off.

    In Europe, airlines are getting out of the short-haul service.

    They should do so here, also.

    Instead, we’ll see fuel prices go back up again and the airlines will cut back further, all the while opposing high-speed train service. Scores of small towns in the US have already lost air service entirely.

    It’s getting glaringly obvious that the US is way behind the curve when countries like India and Argentina are building high-speed rail networks.

  6. Kent from Waco says:

    Actually, light rail can function well as “heavy” rail. “Light” rail is actually a misnomer. The difference between light rail and heavy rail is only the length of trains. Light rail means trains no more than a city block long. Salt Lake City has already violated that definition, since they are running five-car trains on their Sandy line at rush hour.

    Maybe I don’t understand the correct terminology but here’s how I understand the difference:

    LIGHT RAIL: Trains DESIGNED at least in principle to be able to share rights of ways with cars on the highway. This design requirement necessitates a variety of features including: (1) overhead catenary wires, and (2) restrictions on the maximum length of trains.

    HEAVY RAIL: These are the traditional subway or metro trains found in big cities like New York, Washington DC and other large cities around the world. Although heavy rail lines do not need to be underground subways, and many heavy rail lines are above ground for much of their routes, the fact that they are designed to go underground means that they are powered by an outside 3rd rail rather than overhead catenary lines. It’s not generally practical to power subways with overhead wires because that would require much taller subway tunnels which would increase construction costs enormously. However once you have made the decision to go with heavy rail, it means that every single inch of the track system must be a dedicated and protected right of way. For obvious reasons you cannot have electrified 3rd rails running down city streets or even through neighborhoods without high protective fencing to keep people and animals off the rails. This means that every place a heavy rail system and streets interact they must use bridges or tunnels for either the road or the train. No grade crossings are possible. However, once you have committed to heavy rail there is no real limits to train length, speed, or frequency except for the length of the stations. Its not practical to run trains that are longer than the stations as that really slows down the system. Better to just increase train frequency.

    Now I grant you that light rail trains can and do run in their own right of way. I lived in Portland for many years and was in college when the MAX was first constructed. For much of its length it does run along I-84 in its own right of way and there is a tunnel cutting through the west hills on the newer line. But because the trains travel on city streets through downtown Portland and Beaverton they have to use light rail.

    In fact, going with heavy rail pretty much means building a subway in most developed cities because there simply isn’t any place to put above ground heavy rail trains in existing downtowns except on the existing streets which can’t be done with an electrified 3rd rail. One alternative is elevated trains like in Chicago. But once you decide to elevate trains might as well build a monorail or mag-lev system rather than a traditional heavy rail system.

    What I like about heavy rail metro systems like DC, NYC and all the other major cities in the world is that they are always 100% independent of city traffic and of the weather for the most part. No matter how much of a mess the rest of the city is, the trains generally run fast and on time.

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