Riding the Texas Central

A commenter asked for my opinion on the Texas Central Railway proposal for high-speed rail, and the various challenges facing it. Thought it merited its own post. So, my thoughts.

My first feeling is skepticism. High speed rail pairs extremely low operating costs with extremely high up-front capital costs. Debt service thus becomes a huge determinant in whether or not a line can “break even.” A few basis points can make or break the entire system.

Privately-financed HSR infrastructure ends up costing a lot more because private borrowing costs are so much higher. True, a private system may see lower construction costs, by being exempted from federal contracting and prevailing wage requirements. But in a right-to-work state like Texas, the prevailing wage isn’t all that steep to begin with. And even states with a history of iffy finances (e.g., California) can issue bonds cheaper than most companies.

Even a system with good ridership can thus operate “in the red” if the banks are extracting too large of a cut. This happened in Taiwan. Three years after their HSR system opened, they were bleeding money in interest payments, and had to be refinanced with a new set of loans backstopped by the Bank of Taiwan.

There is a workaround – namely, the RRIF. RRIF lets private railroad entities get loans for whatever the going rate is on T-bills, thus avoiding a Taiwan scenario. As you might imagine, the Republican and Libertarian establishments hate this program. For instance, here’s Reason coming out against the Los Angeles-Las Vegas line, and here’s Heritage echoing the sentiment.

So my thoughts are, given that the exact same people who would oppose a publicly-financed and owned rail system are going to be just as opposed to a privately-financed and owned rail system with government loans, why not just go for the full enchilada? Build it with public funds and then let JR or First or Veolia contract out to run the trains.

Having expressed skepticism of the financing model, my second reaction is excitement. I’m a partisan. I want to see 700-series Shinkansen in Texas. The reason is loading gauge. Off-the-shelf Euro trainsets are built to Berne Gauge, which is a bit over 10′. Existing North American trainsets are built to Plate C, which is a bit wider. But Shinkansen uses its own loading gauge, explicitly designed for HSR.

So while the ICE-3 is 9’8″, Amfleet is 10’6″, and the “international” Velaro D is 10’8″, the N700 clocks in at 11’1″. Do you shop at Casual Male? Do you drive an SUV? This is the train for you. Of course, the Japan/Taiwan spec has 5-across seating in economy class. But I have to imagine that no US operator would be stupid enough to bring that here. And indeed, Texas Central’s website shows four-across “green car” seating. An all-Green Car Shinkansen would really be quite something.

Moreover, when it comes to the route structure, my attitude is one of endorsement. Texas Central proposes to put one station in downtown Dallas and one station on the northern outskirts of Houston. This makes sense when you consider demographics and airport location.

On the demographic side, HSR ridership skews toward a higher-income, service-sector crowd. Dallas’s office sprawl heads northward, which tends to funnel the Plano-Frisco-Galleria folk through downtown. By contrast, Houston’s office sprawl goes west, and Dallas-bound traffic utilizes any of several ring roads before finally coalescing somewhere in The Woodlands. This supports a Downtown Dallas station and a North Houston station.

On the airport side, Houstonians have to drive a ways out to reach the aeropuerto, regardless of what flight they’re taking. But Dallas folks have Love Field, which is just a couple miles from Downtown. An outer Houston rail station is thus competitive with air travel in a way that an outer Dallas one wouldn’t be.

As for the issue of stations in Fort Worth and DFW, my tone is one of exasperation. Direct DFW service is a great idea, but there is simply no cheap way to do it. You’re either tunneling under the runways (mega expensive) or extending the APM to Centreport. And since Skylink operates within the secure area, you’d need to construct a satellite terminal for check-in and baggage handling.

Personally, I’d go for a tunnel. It works at Narita, it works at CDG. But that’s some major capital outlay and it seems crazy to me to hang the success or failure of a Houston-Dallas train line on service to the airport. It also doesn’t escape my attention that, assuming the system is ultimately expanded to include the rest of the triangle and beyond, a direct DFW connection tends to advantage airlines with a DFW hub (e.g., AA) at the expense of those using IAH or Love (United, Southwest).

In summary, then, my short take on it is this: I hope they pull it off.

11 thoughts on “Riding the Texas Central”

  1. Would the Houston station at least theoretically be usefully accessible by METRORail at some point? Or would there be a HOT lane a shuttle could take from downtown? Having only a slow bus to IAH from Rice/downtown is a pain.

    Yes I know very few people used the direct airport shuttle when we had it – I remember a few rides when I was the only person using it. I consider that a moral failing of Houstonites of grand proportion.

  2. I would almost prefer that the Houston station *wasn’t* easily accessible by transit, to help provide the impetus for a later extension Downtown. Really, what you ultimately want is a station off the West Loop and another one downtown; think Shinagawa and Tokyo Central.

    But to do this, realistically you’re looking at either trenching through the Heights on MKT, trenching through the “Heights” (nee Washington) next to the UP, or going elevated over IH-10. That’s mega expensive, and subject to NIMBY lawsuit delays; I wouldn’t expect a private entity to shoulder that risk.

    My understanding is that there is a handshake between BNSF and Ed Emmett regarding using their ROW/land parallel to their ROW for HSR. If this is indeed true, then a suburban Houston station would likely be at Willowbrook, where you could transfer to the #44 bus.

  3. I think Texas Central isn’t proposing a station in either downtown, just the suburbs. No real mention of letting the public sector pay for downtown extensions if desired, but that approach would make sense:

    1. If the cities want to use high speed rail as a mechanism to encourage development downtown, let them pay for it

    2. It doesn’t make sense to put heaps of parking and rental car infrastructure, which is undeniably necessary, right in the middle of expensive downtown real estate

    3. I can’t imagine the private company would be opposed to downtown extensions and stations built by somebody else since it wouldn’t make the suburb-to-suburb trips any slower.

    Do you think they will have any intermediate stops at all?

  4. I think the airport connections for HSR are a little oversold. The odds of someone flying from, say, LAX to DFW and then taking the train to Houston are low. I’ll just fly to IAH. The Shinkansen doesn’t go to Narita, right?

    This train will be competing directly with DFW-IAH air traffic. The cool thing about a train is, it doesn’t need a 3-mile long, half-mile wide gash in your city to land. It can go right downtown (or wherever). This train would be awesome because it doesn’t go to DFW. No one wants to go to an airport; it’s just a place you have to go to try to get somewhere else.

    Dallas – DFW – Ft Worth is a distraction, and an expensive one at that. It only takes 30 minutes to get to Centreport from Ft Worth or Dallas on TRE, and that’s making 3-4 stops in between. The track chart I’m looking at shows me mostly 1 degree curves. With 4″ superelevation and 6″ underbalance, that’s good for about 120 mph. So with relatively little work, you could do that trip in 15 minutes, easy. Then build/extend a people mover from Centreport to the airport. It’s not like there’s really a transfer penalty – the HSR would only have one stop at the airport anyway, so you’d probably need to ride an APM from your terminal to that station. (This is the same reason that it doesn’t make sense to extend any LA transit line past Aviation/Century – the APM should handle things from there.)

    Even if you built an entirely new corridor to run the 35 miles from Ft Worth to Dallas, at 220 mph that’s 10 minutes plus accel/decel. At 120 mph it’s 18 minutes. Either one is going to be by far the fastest way between the two downtowns, but one will cost an order of magnitude more…

  5. Intermediate stops? No, I don’t think so. This is one of those areas where going with public financing and ownership gets you an objectively better system. Because as a matter of planning and policy, you absolutely want to route a Houston-Dallas line through Bryan/College Station. It’s a transit-friendly ridership base, it’s a major research university, it’s got crappy air service. It’s exactly the kind of place you’d want to put an intermediate stop, to use HSR as a tool to better tie the state together economically.

    But if you look at it from the private operator’s perspective, basically, they want to fill seats on trains. A residential campus like A&M is going to have largely symmetrical ridership flows: When kids are going to Houston for the weekend, they’re also going to Dallas, and when alumni are coming in from Dallas for the game, they’re also coming in from Houston. Any seat you sell from Houston to B/CS for 40 bucks is potentially a seat you didn’t sell to Dallas for 90.

    And that’s even before you look at the additional expense needed to put in HSR along Wellborn. Even a Highway 6 alignment would end up costing more than staying 15-20 miles outside of town where there’s basically nothing.

  6. Why not an IAH station? Treat AA and UA equally, allow them to sell codeshare tickets. You could probably eliminate air service to College Station and route everybody via the railroad.

  7. My issue with an IAH station is that it constrains the routing too much.

    Ideally, HSR will leave Houston via the Hempstead/290 corridor, with stations at 610 at and the West Belt. A large portion of Houston HSR ridership is going to come from Uptown and the Energy Corridor, and stations in these locations provide an additional 30-60 minute HSR time advantage over flying. And it’s not unheard of elsewhere; even the fastest Nozomi stops at Shinagawa and Shin-Yokohama.

    By contrast, a stop at IAH provides one of two options. Enter downtown on Hempstead then swing back out, which doubles the length of track you’re building through established urban areas. Or stop at IAH first and then enter down along 59/Hardy. This is cool if you live in Kingwood, but it gives up a ridiculous amount of ridership from the western sprawl by making those people drive all the way downtown or to the airport.

    In any event this is all moot if Texas Central pulls it off and (presumably) bypasses Bryan-College Station entirely. At that point all that’s left to argue about is the (presumably publicly-financed) downtown connections.

  8. One of the things that bothers me about the Dallas-Houston plan is it seems difficult to add on Austin and San Antonio later. Do you make it a triangle instead of a T? Do you build a SAT-AUS-BCS line to T into it? Do you connect SAT via I-10 and stop there?

    Obviously as a private citizen who isn’t funding it I don’t get a whole lot of say, but I do feel like I would be a regular user and want my part of the state to be included.

  9. I don’t think it’d be all that difficult. High speed wyes are common in France; for instance, here and here and my personal favorite, here. No corner in that interlocking is less than 2500m (8200′) in radius.

    I can’t envision a separate line to San Antonio. Ultimately, if Texas Central succeeds, the best setup would be a wye in the roughly Montgomery-Navasota area which splits off towards Austin, and another wye around Corsicana for a line through Waco. But something that split the difference – a “T” – would work fine too. Such a route could get reasonably close to A&M by approaching from the west, then turning north or south to avoid the sprawl or slicing right through on Harvey Mitchell, which has more than enough right-of-way.

  10. I didn’t mean mechanically difficult, obviously any connection would be a wye. I mean more in terms of if it gets built as a completely private entity, what incentive do they have to build a lot of track miles for what will be a much smaller ridership increase? Won’t it make more sense for them to stick to Houston-Dallas and pay off their bonds?

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