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Amtrak says Dallas-Houston bullet train could be built within 10 years

The Shinkansen bullet train travels at speeds of up to 200 mph.
The Shinkansen bullet train travels at speeds of up to 200 mph.

Amtrak officials are holding an ambitious goal of getting the Dallas to Houston bullet train built within 10 years, although planners are being careful not to set a specific timeline for the project that has garnered nationwide attention.

During the Southwestern Regional Rail Conference in Hurst this week, an executive for Amtrak, the national passenger railroad company of the United States, reiterated that it supports the multi-billion-dollar plan and continues to work toward developing it. Amtrak had previously announced it was exploring a partnership with Texas Central, the Dallas-based company that hatched the bullet train idea a decade ago, and Amtrak received a $500,000 federal grant in December to further study the proposal.

"This is very much a project that Amtrak is now leading," said senior vice president Andy Byford, who heads Amtrak's high-speed rail development program. "I have to make sure that in any recommendation I give to my CEO and to my board, that it is a project that is worthwhile pursuing. And right now, having looked at the revenue forecasts and done our due diligence to date, I still think that is the case. That again, though, does not mean that it's a done deal."

During the conference, Byford told a crowd that construction could begin as soon as the "early 2030's," although he was careful not to set anything in stone for a timeline.

The plan is to construct a 240-mile high-speed railway with one stop in between Houston and Dallas, and Texas Central cleared several key hurdles before longtime CEO Carlos Aguilar resigned in 2022 after land acquisitions and fundraising had slowed. The company secured federal approval for the proposed route and the high-speed technology to be used, and the Texas Supreme Court ruled in 2022 that Texas Central had the legal authority to acquire land through eminent domain.

Byford said about 30% of the land needed has been secured for the project, which he estimated will cost at least $30 billion. Further land acquisition amidst opposition by some rural property owners along the route, broad political support and a mix of private and public funding sources will be required to see the bullet train initiative to fruition, according to Byford, who said Amtrak officials view the Houston-to-Dallas connection as one of the most viable high-speed railways in the U.S. because of the size of their population bases, the distance between them and the relatively flat topography between them.

He also said there is a lack of attractive transportation options between Dallas and Houston, with both Interstate 45 and the region's airports expected to become more and more congested. It takes at least 3-4 hours to travel between the cities by car or truck.

"I think this goes beyond just Dallas to Houston, I think as a nation," Byford said. "The alternative is to condemn Americans to ever more crowded interstates, to condemn taxpayers to just paying for ever-widening of highways, and potentially using ever more crowded airports. Surely now is the time to look at, ‘There is an alternative.' It is a proven alternative. It is a system that is safely used in just about every other developed country of the world, except for the U.S."

 Andy Byford speaks to a room of attendees at the Southwestern Regional Rail conference.
Pablo Arauz Peña
Andy Byford speaks to a room of attendees at the Southwestern Regional Rail conference.

The proposed project has significant backing in the Dallas City Council, including from Mayor Eric Johnson. Byford met with the council in March to share details of the plan. While most council members support the Dallas-Houston bullet train, others were skeptical about the Fort Worth to Dallas connection, which is being led by the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

It also has federal and international backing: President Joe Biden and Japan Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, in a list of political understandings released by the White House on Monday, expressed their support for the initiative, which would utilize Japan's Shinkansen technology to transport travelers between Texas' two largest cities in a matter of about 90 minutes.

The U.S. Department of Transportation and Japan's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism both "welcomed Amtrak's leadership" of the project and the utilization of Shinkansen technology.

"The successful completion of development efforts and other requirements would position the project for potential future funding and financing opportunities," the White House said.

Byford said Amtrak plans to spend the next 18 months or so further exploring the high-speed railway and how to pay for it, adding that support from the Texas Legislature would be beneficial. And he acknowledged that there are opponents to the plan, such as the nonprofit organization Texans Against High-Speed Rail, which did not immediately respond to a Wednesday email seeking comment.

Texans Against High-Speed Rail wrote in a Monday post on Facebook that there is "still a lot for the Biden Administration to understand about this project before committing our tax dollars to what was to be a ‘private' project. We are working daily to ensure the right people in key positions know and understand the significant issues this project faces."

Notably, the Texas Department of Transportation has little to no involvement in the project. Jeff Davis, regional rail director at TXDoT, told KERA that that's because Texas Central, and now Amtrak, are leading the project.

"We are just simply completing the studies," Davis said. "Once the studies are completed, then it would be up to the legislature what they want to do."

Davis added that if Amtrak is successful in building the project, then TXDoT would have regulatory enforcement power over the rail's operating lines.

"They would have to come to TxDOT to look at grade crossings, they cross our right away and they cross a couple of our roads," Davis said. "We would treat them as any other railroad when they come to us. We would look at the agreements."

But Byford with Amtrak maintains the high-speed rail would benefit the state and its residents, even if they don't plan on riding and don't want their tax dollars going toward the project.

"If you are, for example, an airline and you might argue what's in it for you, well, you can free up gates slots and planes to operate much more revenue-generating medium-to-long-haul routes than what is typically not very profitable, short-haul routes.

"And even if you're say, for example, a resident of Central Texas who might think, ‘Well, I don't go to Dallas, and I don't go to Houston, so what's in it for me?' Well, if our forecasting is correct, and the ridership is what we predict it will be, which is very healthy levels of ridership and a very healthy return. ... Those are riches that can be disseminated throughout the whole state, so I think there's something in it for everyone."

Pablo Arauz Peña is KERA’s growth and infrastructure reporter. Got a tip? Email Pablo at parauzpena@kera.org. You can follow him on X @pabloaarauz.

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Copyright 2024 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Pablo Arauz Peña
Adam Zuvanich | Houston Public Media