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The Texas Bullet: Y’All Aboard!
As high-speed rail stalls in California, could the Lone Star State be poised to put the country’s first bullet train on track?

In Asia and Europe, tens of millions of people have been happily riding high-speed bullet trains for decades. On our own shores, however, the implementation of intercity high-speed rail has suffered from a host of delays. The one system that has managed to get moving, somewhat—California’s—has lately found itself beset by legal problems and public cynicism over rising costs and the use of eminent domain to obtain private land for the rail line’s right-of-way.

The situation has fans of high-speed rail worried. If America’s first bullet-train system can’t get built in high-tech, environmentally progressive California, they wonder, where can it possibly get built?

Hold on to your ten-gallon hats. Texas, of all places, has emerged as the state that may stand the best chance of winning the U.S. race for high-speed rail. That California might lose bullet-train bragging rights to a state governed by a pro-fracking climate-change skeptic may come as a surprise. But a Texas triumph could also provide us with a teachable moment about how to tailor bullet-train projects to the different cultures and demographics of all 50 states.

Japan's L-Zero bullte train can reach speeds of up to 310 mph.

Right now, the group pushing hardest to bring the bullet train to the Lone Star State is Texas Central Railway, a collection of movers and shakers within Texas’s tight-knit business and public policy communities. Lately, TCR’s vision of whisking passengers across the 240 miles that separate Dallas and Houston in under 90 minutes has picked up considerable speed. With business partner JR Central, Japan’s busiest high-speed rail provider, the company is lining up $10 billion in purely private capital—vowing to forgo any public funding.

Though his company has been working closely with federal and state agencies on safety and right-of-way issues, TCR president Robert Eckels is confident that “our private development approach will be successful for this corridor.” TCR’s market-led approach, he adds, “will be differentiated by the high level of customer experience offered.”

That level is hinted at on TCR’s website, which emphasizes the speed and luxuriousness of the Japanese-built trains that would make up the company’s rolling stock. Clearly TCR hopes to lure the same Texas business travelers who helped make Southwest Airlines a homegrown corporate success story—but who now complain that the time spent getting into and out of airports has made flying between Dallas and Houston not much faster, and definitely not any easier, than driving.

Every trip between Dallas and Houston in a bullet train rather than in a car or plane would keep 113 lbs of CO2 from entering our atmosphere.

Harvard University economist Edward Glaeser has calculated that every trip between Dallas and Houston in a bullet train rather than in a car or plane would keep 113 pounds of CO2 from entering our atmosphere. And in a report sponsored by the Texas Department of Transportation and published last year, a group of civil engineers and economists estimated that a bullet train connecting Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio could draw as many as 22,000 passengers a day. Even if you cut those ridership numbers in half, train passengers would still be reducing atmospheric CO2 by more than a million pounds every day.

Doubtless there are plenty of Texans who would cite the chance to cut CO2 emissions by hundreds of millions of pounds annually as reason enough to support high-speed rail. But that’s not the segment of the market TCR is reaching out to.

Mass transit yields an environmental dividend regardless of why people use it. Were the nation’s first bullet train to come about thanks to Texas business travelers—shuttling, ironically, between two capitals of the oil and chemical industries—it could be the best advertisement imaginable. If high-speed rail is good enough for the good ol’ boys and gals of Texas, maybe the rest of America will realize that it’s good enough for them too.

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image of Jeff Turrentine
Jeff Turrentine is OnEarth's articles editor. A former editor at Architectural Digest, he is also a frequent contributor to Slate, The Washington Post, The New York Times Book Review, and other publications. MORE STORIES ➔
Comments (3)
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I-35 between Austin and San Antonio is a parking lot during rush hour and my state highway here in rural East Texas gets more crowded every day. Spending for infastructure has not kept up with the massive amounts of people moving here everyday. If a bullet train will get people off the highways and airways and cut down on carbon pollution then I'm all for it.If private investors want to fund it for profit then have at it. Most Texans live in the triangle between Dallas-Fort Worth,Houston and Austin-San Antonio and are Urban dwellers. Future rail service between these area and the Texas-Mexico border is past due and should be intergrated with more public mass transit funded by tax revenues.
Bullet trains are a huge waste of money. They go only from one major city business district to another big city business district, thus serving primarily the wealthy. The future belongs to vehicles which drive themselves. For example, if you want to go from one Austin suburb to one Dallas suburb, you will simply call a number, say your desired itinerary, whether you are willing to share and with how many, and when you want to go. The computer will instantly figure out the details and send a vehicle to pick you up immediately or at your desired time. You may have to do a quick change vehicles once to join several other passengers and off you go. You will be dropped off right at your destination. With a bullet train, you would have had to get a ride into downtown Austin, wait for the next scheduled bullet train, go to downtown Dallas which isn't where you really want to go, and get another ride to your suburban destination. The cost of the self-driving cars will be considerably below the bullet train, and require no public funding. The carbon footprint would almost certainly be less because it would save you and all of the other passengers in the vehicle needless time and travel to and from train stations. The vehicles would be all electric, so the carbon footprint would be only the embodied carbon in the wind turbine, vehicle, and charging facilities. It's much better to spend public dollars on more PV solar and wind turbines than on expensive bullet trains which would have a very limited utility due to their fixed tracking and extremely high cost of construction. Self-driving electric cars, buses, and trucks are a virtual certainty. Hopefully, with more secure driving, highway speed limits will be raised to 80 mph or more. Self driven vehicles will markedly decrease the cost of transportation as well as the carbon footprint of transportation. No more picking your son or daughter up at the airport or train station or driving them off to college. No need for a personal car, pick-up truck, or SUV at all. No need for a garage or parking. No gas stations, no fumes, little noise. They will also free up many workers for more productive jobs, like installing PV panels and maintaining wind turbines.
I-45 between Houston and Dallas is another parking lot during holiday rushes. Too bad they had to choose Shinkansen trains rather than Eurostar ones that could carry cars as well as people, for travelers who have destinations beyond downtown. But anything that bypasses an hour drive to the airport plus an hour waiting for TSA plus 30 minutes in the air is an improvement. Let's hope they have the sense to provide rental car service at the new train stations.