After a decade of delays, the Dallas-Houston bullet train project might get back on track thanks to a recently announced partnership between Amtrak and Texas Central Partners.
According to an official statement by Amtrak, the two transportation companies are exploring opportunities to move forward with a project that was first announced in 2013, promising to transport travelers from Dallas to Houston in only 90 minutes. Together, the companies submitted applications to several federal programs in connection with further study and design work for the Dallas to Houston segment.
Update, 12/15/2023 9:00 a.m.: There is renewed interest in high-speed rail corridors for the U.S. at the federal level. On Dec. 8, 2023, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) announced it would award a total of $8.2 billion to 10 passenger rail projects across the U.S., including the development of a high-speed rail corridor in California's Central Valley and a brand new one between Las Vegas, Nevada and southern California.
In the same announcement, the FRA revealed the selections for its Corridor Identification and Development (Corridor ID) Program, aimed at guiding the development of intercity passenger rails throughout the country. Among the 69 corridors selected in the first round, five are in Texas and at the top of the list is Amtrak's Dallas-Houston corridor. According to the FRA, the agency plans to "work closely with states, transportation agencies, host and operating railroads, and local governments to develop and build passenger rail projects faster than ever before."
The Corridor ID Program awards each selected corridor with a grant of up to $500,000 for the development of a scope, schedule and cost estimate for preparing a service development plan. According to the selection announcement, the Dallas-Houston corridor will offer new services on a new alignment, with station stops in Dallas, Brazos Valley and Houston.
"We’re thinking about the future too with comprehensive and systematic planning efforts to transform the U.S. intercity passenger rail network now and in the years to come,” said FRA Administrator Amit Bose.
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“If we are going to add more high-speed rail to this country, the Dallas to Houston Corridor is a compelling proposition and offers great potential,” said Amtrak Senior Vice President of High-Speed Rail Development Programs Andy Byford in an official statement. “We believe many of the country’s biggest and fastest-growing metropolitan areas, like Houston and Dallas, deserve more high quality high-speed, intercity rail service.”
But not everyone is as optimistic about the high-speed rail project as Byford. In the past decade, the Dallas-Houston bullet train experienced significant pushback from federal agencies and rural landowners, farmers and ranchers who opposed the possibility of having their lands bisected by a train going 200 miles per hour.
Finally, in June 2022, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled in favor of Texas Central Partners, granting the company eminent-domain authority under Chapter 131 of the Texas Transportation Code, allowing for the forcible purchase of land from unwilling owners. But that same year, additional setbacks delayed the project even more — only days before the court ruling, Texas Central Partners suffered a leadership exodus.
On June 12, 2022, after the international press reported that the entire Texas Central management team abandoned the project, Carlos Aguilar announced on his LinkedIn page that he was resigning from his role as CEO and president of the company, citing an inability to "align current stakeholders on a common vision for a path forward." Following Aguilar’s departure, the board of directors reportedly disbanded.
But even with multiple drawbacks, Texas Central’s vision had one very attractive promise — in contrast with previous similar projects that would rely on public funding, the Dallas-Houston high-speed rail would be completely privately funded. “This project is fully financeable based on ticket sales,” Texas Central president Tim Keith told The Dallas Morning News in 2017. This would reduce the project’s building costs by 20%.
Additionally, the bullet train is expected to bring significant economic benefits to the region. In 2016, when the hype for the project was at an all-time high, the Urban Land Institute’s North Texas chapter awarded Texas Central with the “Next Big Idea” award for the Dallas-Houston project, in part, for the estimated $36 billion in economic activity the passenger link would generate in its first 25 years.
However, in 2015, the libertarian think tank, Reason Foundation, analyzed Texas Central’s proposal and released a study that cast a shadow of doubt on the company’s ability to follow through with its promises.
The study’s results, which had an update in March 2023, showed there were reasons to remain skeptical — in the first place, the study questioned the company’s assertion that it could be completely funded by private investors. According to the foundation, Texas Central is planning to apply for Railroad Rehabilitation and Investment Financing (RRIF) loans, which have lax taxpayer protections.
Secondly, the construction cost numbers the company published (between $10 and $12 billion) were challenged by the think tank. “We believe this estimate is significantly understated,” the study’s author Baruch Feigenbaum explained in the report. “Our capital cost estimate is $17.8 billion, although we believe actual construction costs may exceed $20 billion.” The study also highlighted that the revenue expected was likely exaggerated.
But now, with Amtrak’s partnership, the project might receive a much-needed breath of fresh air and revitalized trust. Both mayors of Dallas and Houston expressed their support for the project. Even union leader Jerry Wilson, president of the Iron Workers District Council of Texas and the Mid South States, backed the advancement of the initiative, enthusiastic by the prospects of the creation of thousands of new well-payed construction and long-term, skilled positions.
“Dallas is the engine of the fourth largest and fastest-growing region in the nation,” Dallas Mayor Eric L. Johnson said. “It is bold, innovative endeavors like this that will propel Dallas toward an even more prosperous future. A high-speed rail line would revolutionize transportation in our region, serve as a catalyst for economic growth, and enhance connectivity among Texas residents and businesses.”
Mayor Sylvester Turner of Houston added, “The potential partnership of these two companies will accelerate the planning and analysis necessary for the successful implementation of a modern, efficient, and environmentally sustainable rail system connecting Houston and Dallas.”