Japan’s flagship Tokaido Shinkansen high-speed rail line links the capital Tokyo to second city Osaka with an average of 179 daily services in each direction. These “bullet trains” make the 343 mile (553 km) journey in as little as 2 hours and 22 minutes, for an average speed of 143 miles (230 km) per hour. The top speed is limited to 177 miles (285 km) per hour for safety and comfort. The trains themselves could go much faster, but are run “slow” for maximum safety and comfort.
Japan is difficult territory for high speed trains. The mountainous countryside makes for steep gradients and lots of curves. The Shinkansen trains are so fast that booming in and out of tunnels can create serious turbulence. Running through some of the most densely populated places on Earth makes construction and maintenance a nightmare. And then there are the typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis, not to mention plain old snow.
Enter Texas. The flat, sparsely populated plains of east Texas make it ideal Shinkansen territory. And while Houston and Dallas may be no Tokyo and Osaka, they’re both big metropolitan areas connected by roughly 20 flights a day in each direction. The flight takes roughly one hour in the air, plus another two hours for check-in, security, boarding, exiting and delays. The drive takes four hours — if you’re lucky. A Shinkansen could make the trip in 90 minutes, guaranteed.
That’s not a science fiction fantasy. It’s a working plan. The Texas Central railway has reportedly raised more than $100 million from investors, mapped out a route, and begun purchasing options on the necessary land. It has an environmental green light from the Federal Railroad Administration and in-principle agreements for its three planned stations. It even has a design concept for its Dallas terminal.
Two big challenges remain: raising the money and buying the land. The money will take care of itself, if Japanese interest is anything to go by: JR Central (operator of the Tokaido Shinkansen) is supporting the project with a dedicated Texas technical center and the Japan Overseas Infrastructure Investment Corporation has chipped in $40 million in financing. But even if they can raise the money, a 240 mile (386 km) long railroad needs land — and lots of it.
Give me land, lots of land
The Texas Central railway is probably the most likely of America’s many mooted high speed rail projects to actually make it into operation. If it can acquire all of the necessary land rights, it is likely to be economically viable once built. The biggest hurdle is a dispute over the use of eminent domain to force recalcitrant landowners to sell out, a dispute that the Texas statehouse has so far declined to settle with new legislation.
Land is the key advantage Texas has over other American high speed rail projects. The Northeast Maglev proposal to build a super high speed magnetic levitation train from Washington to New York looks great on a map, but would be impossible to build in such a congested corner of the country. The promoters suggest that they could build the entire system in a deep tunnel — at an almost unimaginable cost.
The California High-Speed Rail project is actually under construction, but has been bogged down in minor construction disputes over the relocation of utility wires in the Los Angeles suburbs. It’s hard to imagine construction ever progressing at such a snail’s pace all the way to San Francisco. Facing massive cost overruns, the publicly-funded project may be closed down by voters before it even gets close. The most the state is likely to get out of its investment is a regional Los Angeles commuter line.
Don’t fence me in
Texas is much less crowded. Critics of the Texas Central project warn that the Lone Star Shinkansen will have too few stops from which to generate passenger numbers and won’t bring passengers to their final destinations, lessening the attraction for potential business commuters. Both of these criticisms misunderstand the emerging economics of high-speed rail. Fewer stops and remote stations are actually key advantages for the Texas Central railway.
The 15 intermediate stops on the Tokaido Shinkansen (four of them even on the fastest route) dramatically curtail the advantages of high speed rail, adding to both the time and the energy consumption of the line. When you have a 16-car rail set carrying 1,200 passengers at 200 miles per hour, the last thing you want to do is slow down. The Texas Central route will have only one intermediate stop, at Brazos Valley (Texas A&M University), and presumably most trains will skip it. That will make the Texas line much more economical than similar-length routes in Japan.
Worries that passengers will arrive at the rail terminal with nowhere to go are similarly unjustified — or at least soon will be. The Dallas terminal will be in downtown Dallas, even though many corporate headquarters are located north of the I-635 corridor, while the Houston terminal is slated for the shuttered Northwest Mall, 10 miles (16 km) from downtown’s corporate suites. The crucial factor at both sites is excellent highway access.
Not that the passengers will be driving themselves. The Texas Central won’t open until 2023 at the earliest, by which time you won’t even need an Uber to get a Lyft. General Motors plans to launch self-driving electric taxis in 2019, and Ford in 2021. Getting to and from the high speed rail station will not be a problem. The best station locations will be those that are close to highway connections, not close to mass transit links.
The Texas Central rail project may or may not go forward. But from a technical standpoint, it has the best business case of any high-speed rail project in America. That’s probably why it is the only one that promises to rely entirely on private financing. Twenty-first century rail isn’t about density and mass transit. It’s about land and distance — and Texas has both.