This review discusses various challenges and solutions to tackle them on the route that the Texas Central is developing between Houston and Dallas. A privately funded high-speed rail line promises to whisk passengers from Houston to Dallas at 200 mph; however, building the project may divide rural areas even as it unites cities. Inter-regional passenger car travel and three- to five-hour air flights are increasingly plagued by delays, hassles, and bureaucratic security theater. Researchers believe high-speed rail can compete in that market, potentially transforming the way business is conducted and national geography is conceived. That is, of course, if the companies building high-speed rail lines can find the right alignments between cities without alienating residents, businesses, and farmers along the way. Texas Central Railway has chosen the Japanese Shinkansen bullet train technology for its trainsets and rail. The current plan is for all the power and passenger cars to be made in Japan.
PRAIRIE HOME The countryside in Ellis County, Texas, shown here, could soon be split by the grade-separated tracks of the Texas Central Railway. The high speed line will use Japanese bullet-train technology (opposite). Photo (opposite): Texas Central Railway
At first, Marty Hiles was delighted to hear that a high-speed railway–the Texas Central–was going to travel through rural Ellis County, Texas, where Hiles lives. Ellis County is just south of Dallas, part of the 7 million-person Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, and its economy is dominated by the city.
The county had been the site of the ill-fated and long-since canceled Superconducting Super Collider, a gigantic particle accelerator that had begun to be carved out of the underlying chalk. The place still needed development “to get it out of the shadows of Dallas,” said Hiles, who is a veteran lobbyist and local booster.
“TCR seemed to offer a great opportunity to bring business there,” he said. “We worked on an economic development : summit for Ellis County Involving universities, government, business, and the cities.” Hiles formed a group, Texas Concerned Citizens, to hold the economic development summit. He thought the Texas Central would play a big role in his plans.
But after Hiles and his group attended the first TCR meeting In Dallas, Hiles said, “I came home dumbfounded. There would be no underpasses—just berms. It would be like the Berlin Wall.”
There would be no stops, either. Hiles said the train would simply “fly over” his county, with no economic benefit except possibly a little residual business from the Dallas station. That was the plan for all the counties between Houston and Dallas.
It's easy to believe in high-speed rail when you are sitting in jammed traffic on Houston's Katy Freeway—all 26 lanes of it—or wasting four hours at DFW for a 90-minute flight. Highspeed rail, such as that in Europe, Japan, and now China, is promoted as beautiful, comfortable, quiet, pleasant, convenient, and, of course, fast, none of which can be said about any mode of transportation in the U.S. In Europe, bankers take the Eurostar from London to Paris for lunch (it's just two hours away) and then head back.
Shouldn’t we be as civilized when we travel, rather than holding our shoes at the airport security checkpoint?
But while high-speed rail backers have spent decades trying to get Americans on board, it has been a losing battle up to now. Amtrak's Acela, which is as fast as it gets in the U.S., barely qualifies as “high speed” and elected officials pick up more votes for slashing subsidies and canceling projects than for greenlighting them. Indeed, the Republican majority in Congress has imposed a ban on federal subsidies for highspeed rail projects.
Even in the face of that opposition, projects are going forward. In California, a long-gestating HSR project is being funded with state money. And in Texas and elsewhere in the U.S., entrepreneurs are seeking investment to build privately owned passenger railways.
In 2015, for instance, the TCR obtained $75 million in its first round of fundraising, a step toward the $10 billion it will need to build the route.
What those private companies are finding, though, is that it is easier to draw up a business plan than to build a railroad.
Texas is big. Houston is about as far from El Paso as Paris is from Vienna—and no one is suggesting that Texans or Americans generally are going to ditch their cars in favor of mass transit. But two points suggest that high-speed rail could find a niche here. First, a survey of 1,005 Americans from September 2015 showed that, once informed of high-speed rail's benefits, 63 percent of them (including 65 percent of Republicans) would use such a service if it were available today. Previous HSR surveys have shown that even “car people” aren’t opposed to giving up their cars for long trips.
The second point is that Amtrak hit new—positive—financial records in 2014. The U.S. passenger rail company generated record revenue of $3.2 billion and the lowest operating loss since 1973—$227 million. Moody's Investors Service, a company that rates the creditworthiness of businesses and government agencies, renewed the rail service's rating of A1, the best possible.
Also, the business case for a high-speed rail system is stronger than ever. Michael Ahn, assistant professor of public policy, and Malcolm Einhorn-Russell, senior fellow at the Center for Peace, Democracy, and Development, both at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, believe that high-speed rail is the key to building a nationwide knowledge economy— one that isn’t limited to hotspots like Silicon Valley or Cambridge, Mass.
Ahn recently visited South Korea and saw how easy the Korea Train eXpress (top speed: 190 mph) makes business trips and meetings, even impromptu ones.
“You can meet face-to-face in one day,” Ahn said. “Face-to-face builds trust. It's different from a video conference. If you can get to New York City in 45 minutes from Boston, everything becomes one city. HSR opens up a lot of opportunities. It lowers barriers to social interactions that include sharing ideas, which are the engines of the information economy.”
Einhorn-Russell added, “HSR could be the fuel for economic development in the next decade. Lowering the barriers increases competitive advantages.”
The two say that there should be a national strategy where local or regional HSR strategies—like those in Texas, California, Florida, and elsewhere—are linked into a national one. “HSR offers such an explosive model,” Ahn said.
It's a model, however, that would have to be built. Amtrak created its Acela corridor out of the remains of an East Coast rail network it inherited when Penn Central went bankrupt in the 1970s. Upgrades to that network have had to fit within the existing landscape of rail infrastructure, some of which is more than a century old, as well as the cities it runs through. Those limitations have made it well-nigh impossible to raise the Acela's average Boston-to-Washington speed above 65 miles per hour (though individual stretches are faster).
Newly constructed track running from one population center to another could increase that average speed considerably. In France, where TGV vehicles are designed to run at 200 mph, dedicated track was built between metropolitan suburbs; those lines then connect to existing railroads to bring trains (at slower speeds) to stations in the center of the city. A high-speed trip from Paris to Marseilles, for instance, travels more than 400 miles before making its first stop, bypassing every other city along the way. A train that serves every city—decelerating to a stop, then slowly accelerating back to running speed—would take forever.
Unfortunately for businessmen in places like Ellis County, that means watching the train whiz past.
Even more problematic are the tracks. Standard-issue freight track, with its joints and connections and curves, can’t handle a train going 200 mph. The track needs tighter tolerances and welded joints to keep the trains from shaking themselves apart.
Indeed, engineering the tracks is one of the biggest challenges in building the TC.
“Texas soils have high clay content,” said Shaun McCabe, Texas Central vice president of engineering and environmental. “[This produces] high shrinkage and swelling. Because the track has strict tolerances, there will be geotechnical challenges related to civil structures and corresponding performance criteria relative to the track. The track must be relatively flat. We can’t have shrinkage and swelling that has an impact on the track geometry. We’ll investigate innovative technologies to ensure stability both for situations where the track is elevated via a viaduct or on an embankment.”
Those technologies include various methods to stabilize the soil, such as geo-membranes, which are fabrics that cover the ground to minimize changes in moisture content. Other techniques include driving pilings or using retained engineered fill, where each type of fill is designed to address specific soil issues.
Other challenges are related to the physics of high-speed travel. For instance, to keep down radial acceleration—the force that would push passengers against the wall of the car or throw trains clean off the tracks—high-speed rail alignments have curves so gentle that they look like straight lines. According to a 2015 study commissioned by the Texas Central, “In order to support the desired operating speed of 205 mph, the HSR curves would need to have a minimum radius of 17,060 feet.” (Because radial acceleration goes up by the square of the velocity, a track for a hypothetical 300 mph train would need a radius of curvature of more than 7 miles.)
The route that the Texas Central is developing runs along utility corridors in the counties between Houston and Dallas. According to Ellis County Commissioner Lane Grayson, the utility corridor route is going to cut the county into multiple, virtually isolated segments. “We’ll be greatly impacted,” Grayson said, “with emergency and school bus routes and farmers who may have to travel 10 to 20 miles to get to their property. Even if we do have elevated sections [of the rail], we don’t know if we can get the big farm equipment under it.”
The prospect of taking more time for farmers to reach their fields than for London bankers to get to their Paris lunch dates has led to opposition to the project in every county along the TC route—except for Harris and Dallas counties, initially the only places where stations were planned. But in October, the company announced a station for northern Grimes County, between the college towns of Huntsville and College Station.
So, a small victory for “flyover counties,” but at a cost measured in time. “A stop is about seven minutes,” McCabe said, “including stop and start.”
Texas Central Railway chose the Japanese Shinkansen (almost perfectly rhymes with Wisconsin) bullet train technology for its trainsets and rail. The Japanese bullet train was the first operating high-speed railroad in the world when it was inaugurated in 1964, and it has “demonstrated best-in-class performance and safety with 50 years of no passenger fatalities as a result of derailments or train-on-train collisions,” McCabe said. “Nobody else in the world has a perfect safety record.”
The Shinkansen established the basic technological template for high-speed rail. Electric power is supplied by overhead lines via a pantograph, the train-sets are lightweight and streamlined, and the trains run over newly built dedicated track. A version of tilting technology, which enables trains to lean into curves and thus take them at higher speeds, was introduced in Japan in the 1970s, but was refined elsewhere and is now fairly universal. Distribution of the motors has differed from system to system, with some using a power car (an electric version of the old steam locomotive) at the front and back, while others distribute the propulsion units along each of the passenger cars.
Since TC is a private venture, it can disregard standard government requirements for minimum U.S. content or States-side manufacture of the equipment. That means the Texas Central can be pragmatic about where its initial buy of 15 eight-car trainsets will be manufactured. The current plan is for all the power and passenger cars to be made in Japan. However, for the Texas Central, McCabe said, “The cars are a very small part of the project costs. We are focused on bringing $10 billion to Texas in jobs for civil works alone.”
However, should TC accept any federal funds—which, as of now, is not yet determined—McCabe said, “We’re aware of the government's requirements related to different loan programs and will continue to investigate potential sources of capital investment.”
In spite of the political objections and technological challenges, maybe the best argument in favor of high-speed rail in the U.S. is the cost of the alternatives.
“Our population forecast is 50 million by 2050,” said Orville Thomas, a spokesperson for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which is building a Los Angeles-to-San Francisco line scheduled to begin limited service in 2022. California's current population is about 38 million, Thomas said, and already travel on the state's congested Interstate Highway System is rising five times faster than the rate at which capacity is being added. Flights between Los Angeles and the Bay Area are the most-delayed in the country.
If the state built enough new highways and airports to handle the worsening traffic from population growth—which some state politicians want instead of building the HSR system—the California High-Speed Rail Authority says it would cost more than twice as much as constructing the rail system. It would also, according to the Authority, mean building 4,300 new highway lane miles, 115 additional airport gates, and four new airport runways, which would total an estimated $158 billion. Operations and maintenance on new highway lanes would cost $132.8 billion for more than 50 years.
And highway building can create the kind of displacement that rail opponents in Texas and elsewhere object to. “Cars provide almost universal freedom of movement, but what car-based development does is almost the same as those big railroad berms,” said Raphael Clemente, executive director of the downtown development authority for West Palm Beach, where in 2017 a privately owned, faster-than-Amtrak rail project called All Aboard Florida will connect the city with Miami and Orlando.
“To get from my neighborhood to downtown, you must cross an eight-lane road,” Clemente said. “It splits my city in half.”
Inter-regional passenger car travel and three-to five-hour air flights—the kinds of trips high-speed rail aims to supplant—are increasingly plagued by delays, hassles, and bureaucratic security theater. Ahn and Einhorn-Russell at UMass-Boston believe high-speed rail can compete in that market, potentially transforming the way we conduct business and conceive of the national geography.
That is, of course, if the companies building high-speed rail lines can find the right alignments between cities without alienating residents, businesses, and farmers along the way.
Right now, the HSR reality is gnarly and controversial. But if it can meet the technological, logistical, and even political challenges, it could change the nation.