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Houston-Austin rail study

From Houston Tomorrow:

The Texas Department of Transportation presented results from a study on the potential for new 110 mph passenger rail service between Houston and Austin, potentially connecting College Station, according to Guidry News and documented in the minutes of the December 16 minutes of the Transportation Policy Council.

The study looked at 4 potential alignments, with the following estimated costs and trip times:
– Austin to Houston directly ($972 million – 2hr 45 minutes).
– Austin to Hempstead, with connecting spur service to Bryan / College Station ($1.255 billion – 3hr 51 minutes).
– Austin to Giddings to Bryan / College Station to Hempstead to Houston (a little over $1.149 billion – 3hr 15 minutes).
– Austin to Brenham to Hempstead to Houston, with a spur to Bryan / College Station ($1.213 billion – 3hr 38 minutes).

All routes assumed two round trip options daily with one train each leaving from Houston and Austin in the morning and evening.

All routes assume that they would not actually be a single ride between the centers of the cities, but would connect to commuter rail systems that some are advocating in each region to go from Austin to Elgin and Houston to a suburban location along 290.

Any plans for intercity rail from Houston to Austin depend upon the connections to the urban cores, according to Harris County Public Infrastructure Department Executive Director Art Storey:

“When you’re in the mass transit / public transportation business, the cheapest option is not always the best option. Sometimes when you’re there, it’s best to spend a little more money and do a little more. I would caution that the cheapest option is not necessarily the best option. The second thing is that I think its great that we’re studying this, but that does leave the hard part. You’re not anywhere when you get to Hempstead in terms of the ridership that would use this facility, so there has to be a lot of coordination. If anything, I think it focuses on the importance of what the Rail District is doing, because that is the hard part, getting from 610 to downtown.  And if you don’t get there, you don’t really have the ridership that is going to justify this whole thing.”

Details derived from audio of meeting, recorded by Guidry News (mp3).

TXDOT Houston Austin Rail Presentation (ppt)

I recommend you look at that PowerPoint presentation, as it illustrates the different options discussed. I have to say, I find this all disappointing. The travel time, even for the direct route, is no better than driving, and I have a hard time seeing how this can be a viable, competitive option if you can’t get there any faster than you could have on your own. Part of the reason for this is the stops in between, in Elgin, Giddings, Brenham, and Hempstead, but mostly because the average speed of the train is not very fast; the Hempstead-Houston segment shows an average train speed of 50 MPH, which needless to say would feel like molasses if you were behind the wheel. I don’t know why that segment is projected to be so slow, I don’t know why they only refer to 109 miles of track when it’s about 150 miles between Austin and Houston on 290, and I don’t know where the “Houston” station would be located; neither, apparently, do they, which is in part what Art Storey’s quote is about. I like and support the idea of rail between Austin and Houston as I do between Dallas and Houston, but I feel like we would have to do better than this. Note that there are three alternate routes proposed as well, all of which go through Bryan/College Station. One of them bypasses Brenham, the others take a round trip to B/CS from either Giddings or Hempstead, which adds considerably to the total travel time; as such, none of these alternates are particularly satisfying, either. I hope there will be more to this than what we have seen so far.

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6 Comments

  1. RBearSAT says:

    I agree with you Charles. This seems to need a lot more work to make it viable, especially for a price tag of $1 billion. What’s even more interesting is they say they connect to commuter rail systems in both cities. That also seems short-sighted. Commuter rails don’t have near the urban connections as public transportation. If you’re going to be traveling to either city using the system you probably want to connect to something that has better transit options. Otherwise, it’s just easier to drive.

  2. mollusk says:

    If I’m looking at the PowerPoint correctly, part of the reason for the huge travel times through College Station is that the spur options include EVERYONE going up to Aggieland, and then back the way they came. That is just a non starter.

  3. Mollusk – Yes, that’s my interpretation as well, except for the one alignment that skips Brenham. I agree, adding in a side trip to B/CS is a non-starter – either make it part of the main route, or skip it.

  4. bedmondson says:

    I think there is a bit of confusion here. Usually when rail is talked about between cities it is “high speed” rail that is considered. This TXDOT presentation is instead referring to essentially putting people on a UPRR track. These tracks are designed more for moving large loads rather than people. And relatively speaking 1 billion is far cheaper than the cost of a true high speed rail.

  5. […] commuters with no way to get to wherever they’re going. This is the same basic concern that a commuter or passenger rail line along 290 would have, so when that issue gets resolved then there can be further progress made on a […]

  6. […] I said before, I think any rail line between Houston and Austin that takes longer to drive is highly unlikely to […]