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Japan

When train companies fight

Can’t we all just get along?

A competitor of the company trying to build a Dallas-to-Houston bullet-train connection has blasted the notion that a high-speed rail line can be built without public money.

“The whole thing is just a dream,” said Alain Leray, president of SNCF America, the Maryland-based arm of the French national railway company. “It’s not going to happen on private financing.”

Those remarks came after Texas Central Partners announced last week it had secured a loan of up to $300 million from Japan Overseas Infrastructure Investment Corp. for Transport & Urban Development and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation. Both institutions are backed by the Japanese government.

That drew the ire of SNCF, which has a rival plan to bring speedy rail service to the state. The Texas Central “project is right for Japanese companies subsidized by Japanese taxpayers and wrong for Texas,” said Scott Dunaway, spokesperson for SNCF America, in a statement Tuesday. “Nowhere in the world have high-speed rail projects become reality without government participation.”

SNCF America leaders also called on the Texas Legislature to give direction to the high-speed rail policy debate. The company last spring lobbied state legislators to consider its plan to serve the Interstate 35 corridor with “higher-speed” rail, rather than bullet-train technology.

See here for some background on SNCF and their counter-proposal for high speed rail in Texas. I don’t have the technical knowledge to evaluate their claims about the merits of their system versus TCR’s, and whether one thinks “Japan Overseas Infrastructure Investment Corp. for Transport & Urban Development and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation” count as “public money” when none of it came from US taxpayers is a matter if taste and semantics. What I do know is what I’ve said before, which is that I wish both SNCF and TCR would build their proposed rail lines so that we can get as much of it as possible. The Dallas Business Journal has more.

Japanese high-speed rail operator to open Dallas office

To be close to the action, no doubt.

The Dallas Regional Chamber announced Thursday afternoon that Central Japan Railway Co. will station about 20 employees in Dallas.

The company’s technical and operations experts will help privately-backed Texas Central Partners with the development of what could be America’s first high-speed rail line. Texas Central plans to use the same train and rail technology that Central Japan uses on its Tokaido Shinkansen line that connectsTokyo, Nagoya and Osaka.

“This new train service will drive continued economic growth across Texas, relieve congestion along Interstate 45, and connect our business community with the Houston market in a highly efficient manner,” Dallas chamber president and CEO Dale Petroskey said in a prepared statement.

Plans for a Dallas-Houston bullet train have drawn cheers from federal officials and the state’s two largest urban areas. But it’s fiercely opposed in the rural counties that sit between the two regions.

The Dallas station is planned to be near or atop Interstate 30, just south of downtown. That station and development around it are seen as a way to reconnect downtown to theburgeoning Cedars neighborhood.

Texas Central has some opponents in Congress, too, primarily from suburban areas in between Dallas and Houston. No one ever said this would be easy. Central Japan Railway has been involved in other ways as well, no surprise given the technology and their significant investment in the project. I don’t know that having a Texas presence for CJR will help, but it can’t hurt.

Japan rules, please

The people behind the proposed high-speed rail line in Texas would like for it to be built under the same rules as existing Japanese high-speed rail lines.

Railway operator JR Tokai and an American partner will petition federal regulators to set new rules allowing an ultrahigh-speed line here to be built to Japanese bullet train specifications.

The roughly 400km line connecting Dallas and Houston would meet the same standards used by the Tokaido Shinkansen running between Tokyo and Osaka. That line is operated by JR Tokai, formally known as Central Japan Railway. A three- to four-hour trip by car between the two cities in Texas would take less than 90 minutes on shinkansen bullet trains with a top speed of 320kph.

Texas Central Partners, the company steering the enterprise, is plotting out the route and wooing investors. JR Tokai will set up a unit by year-end to lend the project technical support.

In the U.S., high-speed trains use the same tracks as freight cars and conventional passenger trains. There are no dedicated tracks for high-speed service. Regulations mandate strong, heavy rail cars to minimize casualties from collisions.

But the Tokaido Shinkansen has no railroad crossings, and centralized traffic control with an automatic braking system further reduces the odds of a collision. So its cars can be built lighter, enabling higher speeds and easing the impact on the environment.

Texas Central Partners and JR Tokai will formally request as early as April that the Federal Railroad Administration issue the new rules. Both companies had been talking with the agency behind the scenes. Texas Central Partners hopes to begin construction in 2017 pending the new regulations and separate environmental assessments, with an aim to launch service in 2021.

Seems reasonable to me. There isn’t an existing model for this in the US, so I don’t know how likely this is or how difficult it will be to get these new rules. Bureaucracy can be a strange thing, and as we know this sort of request won’t happen in a vacuum. The various opponents of the project will surely try to get this request denied. So who knows what will happen. With a favorable ruling, I’d assume Texas Central will remain on schedule to begin building in 2017 and running in 2021. Without it, we’ll just have to see.

High speed rail opponents write a letter to Japan

Seriously?

Thirty-three East Texas officials sent a letter to the Japanese ambassador to the United States on Monday to express their opposition to a private Texas firm’s proposed high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston that has strong ties to a Japanese company.

The letter is the latest effort by opponents of Texas Central Partners’ multibillion-dollar project since the firm’s 2012 announcement of its plan to bring Japanese train operator JR Central’s bullet train technology to Texas. Under the agreement, JR Central would sell its Shinkansen trains to Texas Central and play an advisory role on the system’s operations. A Japanese-backed government fund has also invested $40 million in the project.

In the letter to Japanese Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae, local officials argued that the bullet train would burden their communities without providing any benefits and called on Sasae to seek out a different market for the project. The signers of the letter include eleven Republican members of the Legislature: State Sens. Brian Birdwell of Granbury, Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham and Charles Schwertner of Georgetown, and State Reps. Trent Ashby of Lufkin, Cecil Bell of Magnolia, Byron Cook of Corsicana, Kyle Kacal of College Station, Will Metcalf of Conroe, John Raney of College Station, Leighton Schubert of Caldwell, and John Wray of Waxahachie. Other signers include several county judges, county commissioners and members of sub-regional planning commissions in the rural areas that would be most affected by the proposal.

“While we respect your country’s ambitious goal of exporting the Shinkansen technology, as residents and leaders in East Texas, we remain opposed to the HSR Project because it will cause irreparable harm to our communities,” the officials wrote.

[…]

Texans Against High Speed Rail, which spearheaded the letter, touted it as a reflection of “overwhelming local opposition” to the project.

“This project is not just an issue of unwarranted use of eminent domain but also one of eventual taxpayer subsidies that will impact all Texans,” said Kyle Workman, the group’s president. “Our officials understand the full magnitude of the damage that can be done because of this, and I applaud their fortitude in standing with and for the citizens they represent on this issue.”

Given that the partnership between Texas Central and JR Central is a private one that does not directly involve the ambassador, Texans Against High Speed Rail is primarily hoping that Sasae will help facilitate further discussion with all interested parties, according to Judge Ben Leman of Grimes County, one of the signers of the letter.

“We want Japanese officials to know first-hand directly from the elected officials of the state of Texas how we feel about this project,” Grimes said. “Because there are so many Japanese sources of the funding, we’re hoping that not only will the ambassador read it and engage in communication with us directly and the aspects of the Japanese government that we need to speak with, but also engage with the United States government as well.”

Okay then. I guess it’s unclear to me what the letter writers hope to accomplish with this. Do they think the ambassador will pick up the phone and call Texas Central and tell them “Hey, you guys may not be aware of this, but some folks don’t like your project”? Or maybe pick up the phone and have the same conversation with some of the actual or potential Japanese investors in Texas Central? Has any business venture in another country that was backed by US-based companies been affected by the penning of a letter to the US ambassador in said country? I really have no idea what, other than getting a story written in the Trib (for which I say, well done), this was supposed to do that a letter to the editor of one’s local newspaper wouldn’t have done. I suppose one must do something during the legislative off-season to keep the momentum. The Press has more.

Checking in on Texas Central

It’s still going.

The private firm hoping to build a high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston has been celebrating a summer of successes: completing a successful round of fundraising, seeing a key federal study move forward, surviving the legislative session unscathed.

But three years after Texas Central Partners first revealed its ambitious venture, a series of financial, logistical and political challenges remain. To Kyle Workman, president of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, those challenges are enough to make him question whether construction on the project will ever begin.

“Frankly, they’re on a salvage mission,” Workman said of Texas Central executives. “They’re trying to generate news that says, ‘We think we’re close.’ The reality is, they’re not that close.”

Yet Tim Keith, who has served as Texas Central’s CEO for just more than a month, said the project is moving forward as planned and is more or less on schedule.

“I think my biggest challenge is conveying an abstract idea to Texans,” Keith said. “We are firmly committed to doing everything in our control and power to be selling tickets beginning in 2021.”

[…]

While many Houston- and Dallas-area officials have backed the project, officials in communities in between have mostly come out against it. Statewide officials have largely avoided taking a position.

“I want to see transportation needs satisfied,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said when asked about the bullet train at a June press conference in Dallas.

Though he didn’t make clear whether he supports the bullet train, Abbott touched on the two issues that drew concerns from the Legislature this year. He said he aimed to ensure that the project neither spent any public tax dollars nor infringed on private property rights.

“As this process moves along, I will diligently work to ensure that both of those criteria are satisfied,” Abbott said.

Yes, for all the jockeying that various legislators and local officials have done, the statewides have been pretty quiet about Texas Central. Normally, a business that plans to invest billions in Texas would be catnip for Abbott and Dan Patrick and so on, but the politics here are more complex than that. My guess is that they will jump on the bandwagon of whichever side prevails, right around the point at which it becomes clear which side will win.

The Federal Railroad Administration launched an environmental review of the project in 2014. Last month, the railroad administration narrowed its focus for the train route to a “utility corridor,” which is reserved for high-voltage electric transmission lines. Any route within that corridor would likely involve the train crossing some private land.

Keith, who joined Texas Central as CEO in July, said he is hopeful the railroad administration will offer tentative approval for a route within the corridor this fall and that the company would be able to quickly follow with discussions with affected landowners. A railroad administration spokesman declined to comment.

Major infrastructure projects hit a turning point when people can study specific routes, said Robert Puentes, director of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

“It’s easy to oppose or support something in the abstract,” Puentes said. “When you start really thinking about the details of where the construction happens and how it interacts with the existing land and the existing users, it becomes much more real.”

[…]

Company officials are expected to formally request next year that the railroad administration agree to waive or tweak various federal regulations. Keith acknowledged the train’s speed is part of the need for regulatory waivers but said so too is the system’s advanced technology, including its signaling and automatic train control system, both of which would be new to the United States. The Shinkansen’s famed record of zero casualties in over 50 years of operation in Japan is likely to play a central role in the company’s argument to federal regulators.

“The approach that this system takes is crash avoidance and that is different from some of the existing regulations for trains currently operating in the U.S.,” Keith said.

I feel pretty confident that Texas Central will pass the environmental review process. I doubt knowing the specifics will cool the ardor of their opponents, so they need to do what they can to avoid making any more enemies, because at some point that just becomes untenable. Looks like we may know something by mid 2016 or so. Paradise in Hell has more.

SJL talks high speed rail

The dream lives on.

I've been on this train

Officials in Japan and South Korea told Houston Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee that they are interested in helping Texas build a high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas.

The Houston Democrat said the foreign officials described their interest to her during an official congressional visit to Japan, South Korea and China.

“This is absolutely the right direction America should be moving toward,” said Jackson Lee, who traveled between Osaka and Tokyo on Japan’s world famous high-speed rail system.

[…]

Officials in Houston will make the next push for federal funding in 2013, Jackson Lee said.

I daresay the outcome of the next election will have a significant bearing on the odds of success for that push. Be that as it may, I presume these are the same officials in Japan that have expressed interest in this project before. All I can say is that it sure does take a long time for anything to happen with these ideas. Tune in next year and we’ll see if anything is different by then.

A more worldly World Series

This sounds cool.

US Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has proposed to launch a “global World Series” between US and Japanese champion clubs, press reports said Friday.

Selig’s Japanese counterpart, Nippon Professional Baseball commissioner Ryozo Kato, told Japanese media on Thursday the proposal was made when they met in Milwaukee on Tuesday.

“Mr Selig has expressed his enthusiasm to realise (the series) while he is in office,” Kato was quoted as saying in the daily Sankei Shimbun’s Internet edition. “He emphasised that the real World Series will be important not only for Japan and the United States but also for the world.”

Selig, who is due to retire in 2012, “said he was not floating the idea as a dream but he wanted to deal with it as a real issue”, the Nikkan Sports daily quoted Kato as saying.

I don’t know how this would work – certainly there would be logistical issues if you wanted this to be a best-of-seven series with games played in each team’s stadium – but I like the idea and hope all involved can make it work. And maybe someday, get other countries’ league champs to play as well.

Eri Yoshida

Meet the first woman to play professional baseball in Japan.

Eri Yoshida, a 17-year-old who throws a sidearm knuckleball, took the mound in the ninth inning of Kobe 9 Cruise’s 5-0 win over the Osaka Gold Villicanes in the newly-formed Kansai Independent League.

She walked the first batter leading off the inning on four pitches and allowed a stolen base before striking out the next batter swinging at Osaka Dome. She was then replaced after facing just two batters.

The 5-feet, 114-pound Yoshida is hoping to stick with the Kobe team. Friday’s performance was far from conclusive but at least she has the first strikeout of her career.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of someone throwing a sidearm knuckleball before. David Pinto, from whom I got the link, has some video there so you can see what that looks like for yourself. Good luck, Eri Yoshida.