Imagine waking up in Dallas, going to Houston for lunch, and being back in Big D for a 3 p.m. meeting.
Sound like a fantasy? It could be reality in just a few years, thanks to a fast-moving Texas company that plans to deploy fast-moving trains.
Texas Central Railway wants to build a Dallas-to-Houston corridor for a 200-mph electric train, like the ones that operate in Japan. It would be faster than any train operating in the United States. The bullet train could get from Dallas to Houston in about 90 minutes. Passengers could start boarding in seven years.
High-speed rail advocates in Texas believe the private project could jump-start a network of high-speed routes across the state. The U.S. Department of Transportation is already talking with mayors in Austin and San Antonio about connecting their cities.
The Texas Department of Transportation is using federal money to study a route that would stretch from Oklahoma City through Central Texas to the Rio Grande Valley.
Texas Central’s president, Robert Eckels, says Dallas-to-Houston tickets would cost about 80 percent of a plane ticket. He claims the non-stop bullet train would be more reliable and convenient than flying or driving.
“Short-haul flights have gotten to be more and more a hassle,” Eckels said. “You have to go through security and weather delays. … Our trains will be running within one minute of scheduled performance. They’re not delayed by weather. There’s no magnetometer or X-ray machine to go through."
Price tag: More than $10 billion
Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes is pressing for a line that would connect from Texas Central Railway’s Dallas station to Arlington and Fort Worth.
“We’re hoping there will be a private sector partner that will want to participate in what we call the 'three-station concept,' which will come over to Fort Worth and provide a tie into D/FW Airport,” Fickes said. “When you start looking at ridership available in the Mid Cities and the Fort Worth area, it will attract a lot of interest from high-speed players across the world.”
Government involvement doomed high-speed projects in the 1990s, Eckels believes. In addition, short-haul airlines fought the competition and lobbied lawmakers. Developers couldn’t raise enough money.
But Eckels says his group has done its homework. They’ve identified the Houston-Dallas route as the most profitable in the country. Eckels says they can move faster because they’ll bypass public funding. The project will cost more than $10 billion, he said.
“If you’re private, you don’t have the bureaucracy to deal with,” he said. “We’re not looking for an operating subsidy.”
"Harder to see out the window"
Eckels, a former Harris County judge, is joined in the venture by another influential Texan, Tom Schieffer of Fort Worth, the former Texas Rangers president and former ambassador to Japan.
Eckels says his company hopes to start the required environmental study within months along a corridor that could follow Interstate 45. While the group hopes to use existing right-of-way, it will have to acquire additional property, some through eminent domain.
The group plans to begin construction by 2016 and board its first passengers as early as 2020.
Rail advocates say there will still be a need for Amtrak and the slower-moving trains that connect communities.
Many Amtrak passengers arriving in Dallas will tell you they travel by train because they love the adventure.
“My mother worked for Norfolk Southern. So did my grandfather and great grandfather. We like train travel,” Wendy Wood said as she exited the rail car. She had spent two-and-a half days on a train after boarding in Yorktown, Va.
For now, if Wood wanted to take Amtrak further to Houston, she’d have to spend another 24 hours traveling -- first to San Antonio, where she’d wait overnight. And then she’d board a connecting train early the next morning.
Wood says she wouldn’t mind having a speedier option, just in case she wants to get to Houston as fast as a speeding bullet-train.
“It would be harder to see things out the window," she said, "but it would be nice."
All Aboard!: Want To Know More?
This video produced by Texas Central Railway explores the planned Dallas-to-Houston route:
Come On, Ride The (High-Speed) Train
KERA's Shelley Kofler moderated a panel about high-speed rail at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin. The Tribune live-blogged the event. The Tribune also explored the politics of high-speed rail. The Tribune also wrote about the proposed Austin-San Antonio route.