Company plans first U.S. bullet train, opponents doubt viability

DALLAS -  

After decades of use in Japan, the "bullet train" may finally be coming to America if a Texas company gets its way.

Texas Central Railway says the line would run between Dallas and Houston as early as 2024 carrying five million riders per year.

Company president Tim Keith says commuters along the busy corridor are demanding more options besides cars or planes.

"Texans have told us they want to ride the bullet train," Keith said from the roof of his office overlooking where the train station would be built. "There's over 14 million people moving between north Texas and Houston every year.

Keith says if built Texas Central Railway would get riders from Dallas to Houston in 90 minutes. He says the drive can take four-and-a-half hours or more, and is expected to climb even higher as both cities and the corridor in between get more congested. Flying between the two cities takes about an hour, but Keith says it totals around three hours after passengers navigate airports on both ends.

"Thirteen million of those (14 million trips) are by car and Texans have said 'we want to take the train,'" Keith said.

The train would hit top speeds of 200 miles per hour.

A Texas Department of Transportation study estimates the project will cost between $12-18 billion. Texas Central says the project will be privately funded or utilize some federal loans which will be paid back with interest.

Texas Central estimates the line could add up to $36 billion to the state economy over 25 years. The company says that because it is a private venture it will pay county property taxes along the line.

Project opponents, experts and land owners who could see the train cut right through their front yards say the numbers don't add up and the project could turn into a financial boondoggle.

Blake Beckham owns a ranch about 90 miles south of Dallas. One of the proposed routes cuts through his property. He is also the chief litigation counsel for Texans Against High Speed Rail.

"We represent over 200 landowners trying to stop this train," Beckham said. "If TxDOT is right it's instant bankruptcy in the first year."

A 2013 study by TxDOT concluded a high speed rail line between Dallas and Houston would have an annual ridership of 700,000 to 2.7 million people per year by 2035, far below Texas Central's estimates of 5 million.

John Harding, a former scientist for the Federal Railroad Administration, said in an analysis "in short, even using TCR's favorable ridership and construction cost projections, the Dallas-Houston HSR does not appear to be financially viable in either the short or long term."

Texas Central says Harding's assessment was based on inaccurate data. The company also points out the TxDOT report notes it is "not intended to provide a detailed ridership analysis of any individual corridor" because it looked at the general viability of multiple different high speed rail lines around the state of Texas.

The same TxDOT report modified the results for the Dallas to Houston route using "publicized assumptions by the Texas Central Railway" which included lowering the ticket price to 80% of the average airfare around $108 each direction. It also removed a stop at College Station, TX and increased the average travel speed.

With the modifications TxDOT estimated ridership would be 1.5 to 5.7 million by 2035.The TxDOT report is publicly funded.

Texas Central commissioned its own privately funded study which Keith says proves the viability of the project.

The company published the results on its website, but says the data that proves its public support and ridership numbers is proprietary and would not provide the raw data for this story.

"We're listening to Texans," Keith said. "They want to travel between north and south Texas. They want choices. They want a train and we know that demand is there."

The project was touted by the Trump administration as the type of infrastructure project it would like to see.

Beckham doubts the president will actually get on board.

"If this is a good deal, and Trump's business sense says it can pay for itself, maybe they'll get a federal loan," Beckham said. "It's going to take Trump about five minutes of looking at the math and they're going to scrap this project very quick."

Texas Central says it plans to start construction next year, but a lot needs to happen before the nation's first true high speed rail can start zooming down the tracks.

Texas Central has only acquired 30 percent of the private land it may need for the project. Whether the company has the right to declare eminent domain is the subject of current and future debate.

Keith says the company is currently focused on negotiating with landowners to reach agreements. He says he hopes the company would not have to resort to eminent domain.

"Buying someone's property is very personal," Keith said.

Beckham believes the company doesn't have the legal right to declare eminent domain, and he doesn't believe the project will happen at all.

"It's not going to happen," he said.

The company is waiting on an environmental impact study later this year before selecting a final route.

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