By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

If enthusiasm were dollars, high speed rail would be zooming across in Texas.

There has been no shortage of advocates ready to envision and mock-up plans for fast passenger trains in the Lone Star state, starting back in the energy-crisis years of the 1970s and building steam throughout the 1980s when a group called the Texas Railroad Transportation Company (TRTC) devised a plan for the “Texas Triangle,” a 750-mile train route connecting Dallas/Fort Worth to San Antonio and Houston.

While the U.S. considered high speed rail, France moved ahead with the TGV, shown here at Nice. (Photo: Ian Brittan)

French and German rail companies, having helped loft high speed rail in their own countries, expressed interest in collaborating on the Triangle, which would have been a $4 billion (give or take) project starting in the early 1990s.

The Europeans, though, turned out to be more jazzed than many Texans from an array of quarters outside the circle of train advocates. Local critics deemed the high-speed rail plan either unnecessary, too expensive or, in the case of Southwest Airlines (at that time confined to in-state flights), a flat-out business killer. Opposition also rose up along rural areas where the trains would have needed rights-of-way.

“Ultimately, this opposition from farmers and ranchers in rural areas who would receive little if any benefit from the proposed high speed rail system was fatal to the project,” writes engineer Hal B. H. Cooper Jr., in an analysis of why the Texas Triangle failed.

The 1980s and ’90s were just not the right time for rail in the U.S., concludes Dr. Cooper, an engineer and former Texas A&M University professor who worked on the TRTC.

But high speed rail is back on the American agenda; make that some agendas in America.

This spring, the Texas Central High-Speed Railway out of Houston burst onto the scene, offering a plan to connect Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth with high speed rail under a partnership between U.S. interests and a company in Japan, the country that built the world’s first high speed rail, the famously efficient Shinkansen bullet train, in 1964.

The Houston collaboration, lead by former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, would be a completely private undertaking, making it a bit of a rarity in the transportation field. Most modes of travel, from cars to planes, rely on public infrastructure and subsidies. It also raises a question about how the company would negotiate sticky rights of way issues that would arise as it connected to airport terminals or downtown rail stations. (It plans to use existing rail easements along rural stretches.)

Eckels acknowledged to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the project is “highly capital-intensive” but he thinks it’s still commercially viable.

But what’s actually happening?

Meanwhile, the state of Texas is proceeding to study the same D/FW to Houston corridor, having received $15 million to begin that work from the Federal Railroad Administration in 2011.

This work will assess the impact that HSR rail, traveling at a minimum of 150 miles per hour but likely as fast as 220 mph, would have on the people and landscape. Such a train system would “shrink” the distance between Texas’ two major metropolitan areas, putting them with 90 minutes of each other, nearly as fast as by air, but potentially less expensive, and also far quicker than the five to six hours the trip takes by bus or car, said William “Bill” Glavin, director of the Rail Division of the Texas Department of Transportation.

Glavin estimates that the impact studies will work could take up to four years, but possibly less, with the design phase coming immediately thereafter. That would be followed by an unknown number of years for construction, with the total timeframe for the project dictated by whether construction occurs simultaneously along two or more portions of the route.

High speed rail corridors designated by DOT suggest connecting Tulsa and Little Rock to DFW, Austin and San Antonio.

The Dallas-Houston plans, however, are only preliminary. A Texas high speed rail system could begin with a different leg of the “triangle,” such as the DFW to San Antonio corridor, which is part of the nationally designated High-Speed Rail Corridor system.

Even the triangle could be re-configured. One plan, known as the Texas T-Bone would be a sort of aborted triangle, diverting one leg of the route to the College Station area and the Texas A&M campus.

If Texas was slow to get back in the HSR game, these competing visions may have been part of the hang up, Glavin says. A big state with several major cities, Texas has encompassed a lot of ideas about high speed rail, he says. “We had the T-bone, the Triangle,” and plans that encompassed freight, and plans that did not.

When the Deputy Director of the Federal Rail Administration visited in 2010 to discuss allocations for the state, she joked that a consortium of 8 states in the Midwest had one high speed rail plan, whereas Texas was one state with eight possible plans, Glavin said.

It was a nice way of noting that Texas may need to buckle down on one plan.

Is D/FW to Houston that plan?   

In the case of rail, Texas really is bigger, with several large cities (aka, competing interests) inside its borders. At the same time, it doesn’t have to coordinate multiple states to put together a regional transportation system, potentially cutting the bureaucracy involved.

And the starting point for a high speed rail system may be coming into focus with the Dallas/Fort Worth-Houston (or Houston-Dallas for those of you in the Bayou City) plan underway.

The seed money from the federal DOT will help Texas ascertain how viable high speed rail between the two cities would be, and in the process, it could coronate the Dallas-Houston route as the best starting point for that system. It would make sense to join the 4th (D/FW) and 5th (Houston) largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the nation, he said. In addition, the route provides a clear shot with many miles of potential rural right of way  that parallels the existing I-45.

There’s not much interference  on that corridor compared with the D/FW to Austin to San Antonio route, endorsed by many high speed rail enthusiasts, and the federal plan for high speed rail.

Having the rights-of-way relatively uncomplicated between the cities would be helpful, Glavin explained, because the final miles forging into each metropolis would be expensive and complex. Questions would have to be answered in each city about where to place the terminals (at the airport(s) or downtown?) and where and how to negotiate roadblocks (by tunnel or bridge?) The politics could be fierce.

Can I get peanuts with that?

Southwest Airlines was an unabashed opponent of high speed rail in the late 1980s, though at the time, it was more than understandable. The regional air carrier was mostly confined to intra-state travel.

Many rail enthusiasts believe the airlines, particularly Southwest which is moving toward long-haul routes, would hold a new view today.
But Glavin thinks the latest incarnation of passenger rail could be so compatible with air travel, filling in the short-haul regional routes, that airline companies might even want to become operators or private partners in the HSR system.

A query to Southwest about this idea, however, got a chilly response. Chris Mainz of the communications department said in an email:

With respect to HSR, there is nothing to support or oppose as no credible HSR project is presently on the drawing boards either in Texas or elsewhere.  So any comment would be speculative at best and we just don’t have a lot to share on the topic right now.
“Instead of focusing on HSR, we fully support the modernization of the Nation’s Air Traffic Control (ATC) system, especially the development of more fuel/carbon efficient, GPS-based flight procedures–otherwise known as NextGen. Dollar-for-dollar, ATC modernization is much greener (i.e., a greater reduction in CO2 emissions) than HSR.”

The California high speed rail program, which this month won approval from state lawmakers for an initial $8 billion in funding, and the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, which is shepherding several planned routes from a hub in Chicago, would disagree with Mainz characterization of HSR rail as not having anything on the drawing board. Both groups are moving ahead, backed by local support and the Federal Railroad Administration’s plan for 10 high-speed corridors.

Comparing the green aspects of GPS-directed flight to those of high speed rail falls beyond the scope of this article, and would be extremely difficult, given it deals with an emerging technologies.

Well, not quite. High speed rail — defined as electric trains running at more than 150 mph — are already a fact of life in many nations around the world, making electric bullet trains a proven, mature technology.

Glavin maintains that high-speed rail, even though its electricity would come from a grid powered by coal, nuclear power, natural gas and some renewables, is as green as it gets.

“Electric trains have the lowest fuel footprint,” he says, better than airplanes, buses and cars.

By essentially rolling hundreds of people on smooth track, they use momentum as well as fuel, requiring less energy to move.

The Federal Railroad Administration notes in a fact sheet that: “Today’s intercity passenger rail service consumes one-third less energy per passenger-mile than cars. It is estimated that if we built high speed rail lines on all federally designated corridors (on map), it could result in an annual reduction of 6 billion pounds of CO2.”

Recent analysis by transportation experts suggests that long-haul electric trains will trump planes, cars and buses for city-to-city travel, when it comes to energy consumption and emissions. Put them on a grid that derives increasing percentages from renewables, and the green profile of trains gets even better.

Urban studies expert Anthony Perl, co-author of  “Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil,” believes that developing high-speed passenger rail and electric personal cars represents the best opportunity to get the U.S. and other countries off of finite oil supplies and onto lower-carbon travel. Putting renewables on the grid and developing battery storage will help relieve the extra demand on the grid from electric rail and cars, he says.

High speed rail cars pull into the station at Beijing.

Perl notes that China’s already zooming forward with high-speed electric trains, endowing their country with thousands of miles of rail and a plan to connect Beijing to London by 2021.

Just as Japan’s super efficient high speed rail line, built in the 1960s, proved high speed rail could work, China’s zeal for rail could help bring down costs for rail cars and parts, Perl predicts.

However, in the U.S., the key costs of  laying of track — obtaining the real estate on which to run the rail and building the stations — won’t be coming down,  though advocates argue that financing rates are historically low.

Taxpayer tolerance also is low, however. Already the requirements that states pitch in a portion of funds for high speed rail — and the politics of signing onto anything that adds to taxpayer spending — led three states to return federal high speed rail money in 2010. Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida, headed by Republican governors who ran on small government platforms, returned their federal money. That killed plans for high speed rail between Tampa and Orlando; Milwaukee and Madison; and Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry did not return Texas’ high-speed rail money, despite a recently contentious relationship with the federal government. At the same time, Texas has not been on the forefront of planning for this big ticket item.

The line between Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth alone could cost anywhere from $20 million a mile to $80 million a mile — or $5 billion to $20 billion, says Glavin.

The range of potential cost is so wide because it will depend upon many variables, such as whether the train builds stopping points along the way, and how (by tunnel or bridge) it traverses urban areas, he explained.

A rail line connecting these two cities, though, promises phenomenal changes, Glavin says. It would  shrink the distance between these two large metropolises to as little as 90 minutes, allowing commuters to travel between the cities in a day, getting to business meetings, sports events or the symphony. People could settle in small towns along the way with the assurance of a connection to the city, he said.

But it will need to be built first, and even though it could be a public-private partnership with a private company operating the system — collecting tickets and revenues as do all modes of transportation, it would need public support.

Given the potential of high speed rail for enhancing business and quality of life and reducing reliance on fossil fuels, the public investment makes as much sense as putting public money into roads and airports, Glavin says. But that doesn’t mean the public is in a buying mood.

“The crucial thing,” he said, “is the acceptance of cost.”

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