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A high speed train in Texas? Not so fast

April 8, 2017 GMT

For someone who considers himself well-informed about transportation issues, I was taken by surprise by Drayton McLane Jr.’s essay on why he’s invested in the Texas Central High-Speed Railway (Opinion, March 12).

I had no idea there was such an exciting, ambitious project, using no state or federal taxpayer funding, to bring 200 mph trains zipping across the state and that it was attracting sophisticated investors like McLane.

Unfortunately, I don’t share his confidence that sometime in the next few years, “bullet trains” will deliver travelers between the Dallas and Houston metro areas in 90 minutes. My skepticism is based on reporting and writing for newspapers and magazines for four decades about the dream of importing European or Japanese trains for new high-speed rail service. I have not only read innumerable stories on the topic, I wrote many of them. But so far, very little of what those stories forecast has happened.

Before I could evaluate the Texas Central plans, I had to figure out why I was in the dark about a longtime dream of people who believe, as I do, in the value of passenger trains, especially fast and efficient ones. I was smitten by my first ride on a French TGV train in 1982, and I have ridden high-speed trains in Europe numerous times since.

The archives of the San Antonio Express-News, my principal source of Texas news, include a few sentences in one news article about the project (other than McLane’s essay) three years ago. That’s it.

The Houston Chronicle, which shares a parent company with the Express-News, has written more about the project for an obvious reason: The proposed service consists of a single line taking travelers between Houston and Dallas, with one stop, somewhere between Bryan-College Station and Huntsville.

Perhaps the lack of coverage of the project here reflects another fact of life for San Antonio residents: We live in the largest American city — indeed, one of the largest in the world — with no local or regional passenger rail service of any kind, be it light rail, streetcars or commuter rail.

While Dallas and Houston, seeking to alleviate massive highway congestion, have been building rail systems from scratch for two decades, San Antonio has gone the other way. Voters rejected funding a light rail system in a referendum in 2000, and there isn’t sufficient political or business support to revive the idea.

Plans for a commuter-rail service between San Antonio and Austin also are in limbo, so it’s no wonder Texas Central’s plans don’t include a link to our part of the state. Intercity rail service is used more widely when it connects to robust public transportation options at each station served.

What’s more, if Congress follows President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget for Amtrak, all of its long-distance trains will be eliminated, including those that amble slowly across Texas, further diminishing support for rail service.

On the other hand, the odds are against Congress agreeing to the idea. Republican politicians have made the same proposal for more than 30 years but have never succeeded, mostly because of support for the trains from the heartland where Trump’s backers live.

The odds also are poor that Texas Central will ever operate speedy trains because of the eschewing of state or federal funding.

Transportation infrastructure projects worldwide simply don’t succeed without taxpayer help of some sort. In years past, when high-speed projects using a combination of private and government funding have been proposed, airlines and other free-market devotees have strenuously opposed them.

In 2009, the Obama administration persuaded Congress to provide seed money for high-speed rail lines nationwide, only for the funding to be withdrawn when Republicans regained the majority in 2011.

In this case, an opposition group, Texans Against High-Speed Rail, appears to be well-funded and determined. Among its objections is the need for Texas Central to have eminent domain rights to acquire the land needed for the new rail line, always a touchy subject and the target of proposed legislation against the project in the Texas House.

I sincerely wish it weren’t so, but I see little reason to believe Texas Central’s dream will ever become reality.

Tom Belden is a San Antonio freelance journalist who has written about transportation since 1977.