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Commission for High-Speed Rail in Dallas/Fort Worth

Time for an update on that other high speed rail line

It’s been awhile.

TexasOklahomaPassengerRailStudyRoutes

Backers continue to move along on plans to build a bullet-train route between Dallas and Houston, but it’s not the only high-speed passenger rail project on Texas drawing boards.

With a proposal to run between cities such as Fort Worth, Waco, Austin, San Antonio and Laredo, the project recently got a green light for new money to do further study.

“We’re still an embryo,” said Kevin Feldt, a North Central Texas Council of Governments program manager overseeing the high-speed rail project regionally. “We’re still in the first week or two of pregnancy.”

Nobody has begun buying right of way or buying trains, let alone figured out funding and finance — topics that can fire skepticism about the passenger rail’s ability to break even or turn a profit — but there’s now an environmental impact statement, and potential investors have come calling.

“Suffice it to say, there’s interest in developing (from) Fort Worth southward, possibly to Monterrey, Mexico,” Feldt said. “We’ve had the French and Chinese and Spanish come to us and meet with us to talk about it.

“Some wanted to do one piece; we had others who wanted to do everything.”

The proposed line from North Texas cities — Dallas and Arlington included — is part of an 850-mile project called the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Program Corridor.

[…]

Feldt said that whatever comes out of the next round of study, actually building a high-speed passenger rail — not to mention a Hyperloop system — will be “a lot more complex” than the challenges the private company working to roll out the Dallas/Houston passenger train has encountered.

The Dallas/Houston corridor is not only flatter and easier to run a high-speed train across, but less populous.

Still, like Feldt, Bill Meadows, who chairs the Commission for High Speed Rail in the Dallas/Fort Worth Region, noted the interest from Chinese and French rail representatives in discussing a public-private project here.

And, said Meadows, “They like the (Interstate) 35 corridor better than the (Interstate) 45 corridor.”

See here for the last update that I have, from July of 2016. Since then, the Draft Environmental Study has been completed, which “formally identifies seven Selected Alternatives that will serve as the framework for future investment in new and improved conventional and high-speed passenger rail service in three regions between Oklahoma City and South Texas”. The story also mentions the Hyperloop One Global Challenge, for which Texas remains in contention, though it’s not clear to me from the story how it fits in here. There’s lots of other obstacles that will need to be cleared for anything tangible to happen here, from choosing a single route to putting together financing and governance, to overcoming the inevitable political opposition. But things continue to move, and at this stage that’s about all you can ask for.

Alignments proposed for Oklahoma City-South Texas passenger rail

Check ’em out.

TexasOklahomaPassengerRailStudyRoutes

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) have released 10 service and route options for new and improved conventional and high-speed passenger rail service connecting Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, and South Texas.  The options are evaluated in a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).

“This corridor is home to major financial, energy, and education centers that people rely on every day,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.  “Providing efficient, more reliable, and faster higher-speed passenger rail options to move between cities is crucial for the economy and the population to thrive.  I encourage those along the I-35 corridor to participate in the comment and public hearing opportunities so that they are able to learn more and share their input.”

During a 45-day public comment period, FRA and TxDOT will take comments on the 10 options and the seven recommended preferred options that the two agencies identified.  Four public hearings will also be held to give residents a chance to learn about the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study, understand how their communities may be affected, and provide comments.

Current passenger rail service along the Interstate 35 (I-35) corridor includes three intercity Amtrak services from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth (Heartland Flyer), Fort Worth to San Antonio (Texas Eagle), and Los Angeles to New Orleans through San Antonio (Sunset Limited).

The DEIS addresses the relationships of the major regional markets within the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Program corridor in three geographic sections, and preferred alternatives are recommended for each geographic section separately.  The three sections of study are:

  • Northern Section:  Edmond, Oklahoma, to Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas
  • Central Section:  Dallas and Fort Worth to San Antonio
  • Southern Section:  San Antonio to south Texas (Corpus Christi, Brownsville, Laredo, and the Rio Grande Valley)

More than 10 million people currently live along the 850-mile corridor, which is expected to grow by 39 percent in Texas and 25 percent in Oklahoma City by 2035.  As a state with some of the largest metropolitan areas in the nation, spread out over hundreds of miles, Texas is now in high demand for alternative modes of transportation.  Since the majority of the state’s population is centered in the eastern half of state, along I-35 stretching into Oklahoma City, the highways have experienced increased congestion.

“More passenger rail service will help relieve already congested roads along the I-35 corridor and help this region manage the significant population growth on the way,” said FRA Administrator Sarah E. Feinberg.  “I encourage everyone to provide feedback on the 10 options that FRA and the Texas DOT have presented to continue moving this effort forward.”

In fiscal year 2012, FRA awarded a $5.6 million grant to TxDOT to fund a study of new and improved passenger rail service to meet future intercity travel demand, improve rail facilities, reduce travel times, and improve connections with regional public transit services as an alternative to bus, plane, and private auto travel.  The Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study evaluates routes and types of service for passenger rail service between Oklahoma City, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and South Texas.

More information about the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study can be found here.  The Final EIS is projected to be released by early 2017.

There are three public hearings scheduled to discuss these alignments, on August 9, 10, and 11, in Laredo, Austin, and Arlington, respectively. Relevant documentation is here if you have a few hours to spare and an enjoyment of poring over PDFs, while TxDOT’s page on the project is here. Just looking at the map, which I have embedded above, doesn’t give a clear picture of where the tracks would be. Streetsblog says it wouldn’t actually stop in “urban Austin”, but the map seems to indicate it would go near or by the airport, so perhaps this is a question of terminology.

This project has been kicking around for awhile – Oklahoma got a federal stimulus grant in 2009 to study rail between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, which isn’t actually part of this proposal but may have been the genesis of what we now have – with TxDOT creating the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study page in late 2013; as you can see at that link, there’s a separate project to link this rail line, if it happens, to the Houston-Dallas high speed line, if that happens. An extension into Mexico has also been floated, though I have no idea if we’re even allowed to say that sort of thing out loud any more. As this is a TxDOT project, one presumes that there won’t be any questions about whether or not this qualifies as a real railroad for eminent domain purposes, which is not to say that there won’t be any resistance to the possibility. I’m never sure how seriously to take this, as TxDOT has never been all that interested in anything but roads and there are plenty of ways for the chuckleheads in Congress and the Lege to put up obstacles, but we are at the DEIS stage, and that’s progress. What do you think? See here for the impact statement, and KVUE has more.

Everybody wants in on the rail action

We’re like a magical land of opportunity for high-speed rail interests.

For more than three years, Japanese-backed Texas Central Partners has drawn attention with its plans to develop a Dallas-Houston bullet train. While that project is furthest along, French and Chinese rail interests are more quietly discussing the prospects for rail projects with state and local officials.

“There comes a time when adding lanes is not a solution anymore, and that’s when you realize you need more public transportation,” said Alain Leray, president of SNCF America, the U.S. subsidiary of French rail operator SNCF. The company has been talking with Texas officials in earnest for about a year about potential rail projects, Leray said.

Chinese-backed rail interests have also approached some transportation officials in Texas about future projects, several transportation officials confirmed.

[…]

If passenger rail projects take off in Texas, many international firms will be logical partners, said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

“The people you want to talk to are the people with extensive experience with high-speed rail,” Morris said. “High-speed rail isn’t built in our country, so most of the people with experience in high-speed rail are from other countries.”

Morris has heard from foreign rail firms for years, but solicitations have picked up over the last 12 months, he said, as state and federal studies of the environmental impact of rail projects in Texas have moved forward. The Federal Railroad Administration is studying Texas Central’s proposed Houston-Dallas project and the Texas Department of Transportation is studying the prospects of passenger rail as far north as Oklahoma City and as far south as Monterrey.

“Everyone in the world knows you can’t complete anything without an environmental clearance,” Morris said.

Ross Milloy, executive director of the Lone Star Rail District, which is trying to build a passenger rail line between Austin and San Antonio, said he has also noticed increased interest from international rail firms over the last year and a half.

“I think they view Texas as fertile ground,” Milloy said.

[…]

Just because multiple international firms are looking at Texas doesn’t mean they’ll all work together. Leray said he has talked to officials about the importance of developing a robust high-speed rail network in Texas, rather than just the Dallas-Houston segment. Among the concerns he raised in a Texas Tribune interview is that Texas Central’s line would be built specifically for Shinkansen trains and wouldn’t be able to accommodate other trains. SNCF operates rail systems in Europe that support trains by multiple manufacturers.

“If you choose a system which is not technologically neutral, you’re locking the people of Texas into being served by a monopoly,” Leray said. “And I ask, is this what the people of Texas want?”

In response, Keith pointed to the Shinsaken’s safety record — no collisions or derailments in more than 50 years of operation.

“By operating a single train technology, signaling and core operating system, Texas Central can leverage the history and record of the high-speed rail experience in Japan to ensure the safe, predictable operation of its trains,” Keith said.

[…]

Beyond Texas Central Partners’ Dallas-Houston line, the project appearing to draw the most interest is a rail line between Dallas and Fort Worth. TxDOT created a special commission last year to look at the prospects for such a project. Bill Meadows, chairman of that commission, said the assumption is that such a project would develop with a private partner.

“The state doesn’t want to be in the high-speed rail business,” Meadows said. “There’s enough private sector and regional interest that I see it moving forward in that fashion.”

The Dallas-Fort Worth line has outsized importance, Meadows argued, because it could someday connect a Dallas-Houston line with a train that travels along the state’s crowded I-35 corridor to Austin and San Antonio.

“It is the linchpin that ties the two corridors together,” Meadows said.

Didn’t know there was a fight over what kind of train technology to use on the line. When the lobbyists start getting involved, that’s when you know it’s gotten real. I don’t have anything to add, I’m just glad to see all this action. The Press and Paradise in Hell have more.

The (mostly) high speed rail extension to Fort Worth

I hope they can make this happen.

A proposed high-speed rail route cutting through Dallas-Fort Worth would go slower than previously planned but would include a station south of DFW Airport, according to a newly unveiled plan.

The proposal, which is being studied by a state-appointed commission, would bring passengers from downtown Fort Worth to Arlington along the Interstate 30 corridor, then cut north roughly along the Texas 360 corridor to the CentrePort-Dallas/Fort Worth Airport area. From there, rail passengers could connect with other transportation to the airport to catch flights.

The line would then follow the Trinity Railway Express commuter line from CentrePort to downtown Dallas, according to a conceptual map made public Monday. TRE would keep operating on its tracks, and a second set of tracks — possibly elevated — would be built in the same right of way or adjacent property for the futuristic bullet trains.

The top speed would be around 125 mph — far below the 220 mph that the trains are capable of traveling — partly because of the serpentine shape of the route and the relatively short distance between stations.

But the new route would make high-speed rail accessible to more people in North Texas, a region of about 7 million people that’s expected to grow to 10.7 million by 2040.

“Certainly with the proximity to DFW Airport in this option, I think it’s important to note there is an opportunity there,” said Bill Meadows, chairman of the Commission for High-Speed Rail in the Dallas/Fort Worth Region.

[…]

Although the commission’s main purpose is to provide planning for the Metroplex, Meadows maintains that its work is actually the initial steps in setting up high-speed rail that will connect Houston, Dallas, Arlington, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio and other cities.

There is even interest in extending the lines north to Oklahoma City and south to Monterrey, Mexico, although that would likely take years to materialize, if not decades.

See here and here for the background. As the Dallas Observer notes, there are some questions about how effective this extension may be, given that it can’t go as fast as the Dallas to Houston portion of the line and that driving isn’t exactly burdensome. Still, if Houston and Fort Worth are your endpoints, this would be a very nice option, and there are all those possible expansion plans as well.

There’s more than one player in the Texas high speed rail game

Cool.

What a weird map of Texas

A company that operates France’s national high-speed rail network is exploring possible involvement in Texas bullet trains.

“We’re here to listen, learn and evaluate,” Alain Leray, president and chief executive of SNCF America Inc., said Monday during a visit to downtown Fort Worth.

Leray and a colleague with SNCF, France’s state-owned railway company, attended a two-hour meeting of the Texas high-speed rail commission and later met privately with officials planning the project.

The high-speed rail commission was formed a little more than a year ago by the Texas Department of Transportation to plan for a possible bullet train network connecting Houston, Dallas, Arlington, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio.

[…]

Leray said his firm’s emphasis is on providing high-speed rail services to multiple destinations, including downtown areas. That philosophy could be in contrast to that of the Japan-U.S. partnership, which is emphasizing only a point-to-point connection between Houston and Dallas.

Some critics say the proposed Houston-to-Dallas service will do little more than fill a void for airline service between the cities now that flight restrictions at Dallas’ Love Field have been removed, allowing Southwest Airlines to concentrate on long-distance service.

“Right now, all you have is a connection from outside Houston to Dallas,” Leray said. “My question is, is that what the people of Texas want?”

Texas Central Railway is on course to have its draft environmental document released by the middle of this year, and a federal record of decision by mid- to late-2016 allowing construction to begin on the Houston-to-Dallas line. During a handful of public meetings, some residents, especially in rural areas, have criticized the proposed Houston-to-Dallas line, saying they don’t want a rail service that primarily benefits urban areas cutting through their lands.

Texas Central Railway is trying to do a better job communicating the project to the public to assuage those concerns, spokesman Travis Kelly said.

Kelly said his firm would also welcome involvement by SNCF or any other companies into the planning efforts.

However, the involvement of multiple companies raises questions about connectivity. For example, as it stands now, there are no plans by either SNCF or Texas Central Railway to share technology or allow one entity’s trains on the other’s tracks.

That would seem to create a dilemma for North Texas planners, who have said all along they would support a high-speed rail system in the Metroplex only if there were stops in Arlington and Fort Worth, in addition to Houston and Dallas, and only if a rider could travel among all those cities without changing trains.

But Bill Meadows, a former Fort Worth City Council member who is chairman of the high-speed rail commission, said he is confident questions about connectivity can be addressed.

See here for some background. There are tons of unanswered questions here, about potential routes, funding, and timing, but it’s good to know someone is talking about this. Given the multiple roadblocks that Texas Central High-Speed Railway has encountered so far, it would be wise to take all this with a healthy dose of skepticism. Still, despite the friction Texas Central has come a long way, and there does seem to be real interest in this, so who knows. I’ll keep an eye on it.