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SNCF proposes high-speed rail route for Texas

It’s not the Texas T-Bone, but it’s a start.

Last December, Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters and Representative John Mica (R-FL) announced that the Federal Railroad Administration would begin accepting Expressions of Interest for the development of high-speed lines in the United States. By February, more than 80 groups, including a number of states, train operators, and train constructors, had sent letters describing their interest in being part of the development of American fast train travel. Final responses were due on September 14th.

I’ve obtained documents that show that SNCF, the French national railroad operator made famous by its development of the TGV system, has responded with detailed descriptions of potential operations in four U.S. corridors, all to benefit from train service at speeds of up to 220 mph. The organization refers to this service as HST 220 (220 mph high-speed trains). With the exception of a description of plans by the California High-Speed Rail Authority, SNCF appears to be the only group that submitted a serious, corridor-based response to FRA’s demand, though infrastructure companies Vinci, Spineq, Cintra, Global Via, and Bouygues all sent in letters promoting rather vague interest in involvement.

There is no funding associated with this call for expressions of interest; it is unrelated to the stimulus. Nonetheless, SNCF’s large response — totaling 1,000 pages — exemplifies the degree to which it sees American corridors as a good investment and suggests that the French company is planning an all-out assault on future U.S. rail operations.

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SNCF has an entrenched interest in Texas high-speed rail, having been the majority member of theTexas TGV project of the late 1980s and early 1990s. That proposal collapsed in flames after intense opposition from Southwest Airlines and subsequently state legislators. The company has a sincere interest in moving forward with a new project in the state, and has chosen to focus on a Ft. Worth-Dallas-Austin-San Antonio link, rather than the Dallas-Houston link that’s been much-discussed in recent weeks. The company argues that building the former line first would allow further consideration of the connection to Houston; it is clear that SNCF still considers the Texas Triangle an option, despite recent efforts to promote the T-Bone corridor, portrayed on the map above.

At $13.8 billion in construction costs, SNCF expects benefits to outweigh public infrastructure costs by 170% over a period of 15 years. This project would have the highest rate of return of any of the corridors profiled in the studies presented here. The study projects 12.1 million annual riders by 2026 and 15 million by 2040. After predicting 11.4 million annual riders for the Dallas-Houston corridor last month — far higher than the 1.5 to 3 million economist Ed Glaeser assumed in his study of the line — I feel vindicated.

Dallas and San Antonio would be connected in 1h50, with links between Dallas and Austin in 1h13 non-stop. Seven new stations would be built, five in traditional downtown hubs and two located adjacent to airports in Dallas and San Antonio.

You can see their map for Texas here (large PDF). It’s about 275 miles from San Antonio to Dallas, which would be about a four hour drive under ideal conditions that don’t exist, and as I recall a bit more than an hour’s flight. If your destination is downtown, you’d make up quite a bit of time by not having to get there from either airport.

The DMN Transportation blog has more on this. Obviously, I’d like to see Houston connected to Dallas, whether via Austin (which would fit in well with existing commuter rail proposals) or directly. Regardless, seeing an actual proposal from a private company is pretty exciting. What do you think?

On a related note of good timing, neoHouston is embarking on a detailed exploration of high speed rail in Texas and how to make it successful. I look forward to seeing his impression of the SNCF proposal.

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2 Comments

  1. Appetitus Rationi Pareat says:

    I’m glad to see there is some interest. Having just got back from France and I experienced SNCF firsthand and the TGV. It is a very pleasant and convenient service. Much easier than dealing with airports or driving.

    This has been said before but deserves to be said again, one of the major weaknesses of such a system in a place like Texas is the almost utter lack of regional rail connections. The entire state of Texas has one commuter rail line (the same number as New Mexico btw). Rail service is pathetic and between some areas, it is absolutely nonexistent.

    In France, you can take the TGV between major cities (say Paris and Marseille) and then take regional rail from there. Basically it follows a hub and spoke system, with the TGV forming the backbone. Given Texas’s extremely poor regional rail system, I see this as a problem. This would be less of a problem in the Northeast as there is already a good regional rail network there.

    Not saying it would completely sink such a system in Texas. Any such system will likely be decades in the future and perhaps this will finally force the state to get off their backsides and start funding a 1st world transportation system. TGV stations also have car rental facilities which many people use in France. But as Texas has for decades neglected to adequately fund and build a proper transportation system and infrastructure, I see this as a potential problem with such a system here.

  2. I’d be happy just to get the trains back that were running in the 1940’s. They were spread out over several stations and railroads, but all were in downtown Houston.

    http://sbcglobalpwp.att.net/w/i/willvdv/stbchou.html

    The only train left is Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, which today only runs three times per week. It travels at about half the speed that it did in the 1940’s. I took it to New Orleans 5 years ago. It was supposed to get into to Houston at 10:15 AM. It actually arrived at 4:30 PM. There was one section of track between Beaumont and Lake Charles that was continuous, welded rail, where the train could go faster than 70 MPH. The rest of the line is jointed rail that looks like it was laid down when the Dezi Arnaz and Lucille Ball were live on TV. That line should have been double-tracked years ago.

    The Sunbeam Express took 4 hours and 15 minutes to get to Dallas. That’s about what it takes to drive if you don’t get caught in either town’s rush hours. The SP local took almost six hours, but made 26 stops at towns like Fairbanks and Hockley.

    http://www.streamlinerschedules.com/concourse/track9/sunbeam195008.html

    Just to get the Union Pacific refurbished so trains could go from Dallas to Houston at the speed it takes to drive the distance on I-45 would be great. About 40 years ago, Firesign Theater quipped, “Man dropped a great load of knowledge.” When you look at what’s left of the intercity rail and public transit systems in the US, ain’t that the truth?