Future High-Speed Rail Line Set to Transform Travel and Economics in Texas
Imagine what it would be like to utilize a mass transit system proven to operate with zero crashes or fatalities and averaging less than a minute in annual delays. This is no pipedream – it is reality for travelers in Japan who have access to the Shinkansen train system, one of today’s safest, most reliable and environmentally friendly modes of transport.
Texans will also be able to experience the world-class Shinkansen technology with the future development of a high-speed rail (HSR) corridor connecting North Texas and Greater Houston. If all goes according to plan, the estimated $20 billion infrastructure project – the largest in state history – could begin construction as early as next year.
A Private-Sector Undertaking
A company known as Texas Central is using a market-led approach to lead the development, design, construction, financing and operation of the new high-speed train system. As an investor-owned project, the railroad will not seek grants from the federal government or the state, nor any operational subsidy once operation begins. Rather, this private-sector facility will be a significant taxpayer to the state, counties and school districts in communities where tracks, stations, and other infrastructure are located.
Additionally, the project will create more than 10,000 jobs during peak construction and more than 1,500 permanent jobs once the train is fully operational. Current estimates show 25 percent of permanent jobs will be located in rural areas in which the train will operate, including skilled labor positions such as electricians and metal workers. Over the next 25 years, the railway’s direct economic impact in Texas is expected to exceed $36 billion.
On Track for 2020 Construction Start
There are numerous critical paths happening simultaneously on this mega project, including raising capital, real estate acquisitions, planning and design, and communications with stakeholders and other decision-makers. “The biggest challenge is pulling all of those different pieces together at the right time,” says Holly Reed, Managing Director of External Affairs, Texas Central. “We’ve made great progress on all fronts of the project. We should be able to begin construction very quickly after we get our federal approvals.” The goal is to obtain the final environmental impact statement and approvals by the second quarter of 2020.
To bring the project to fruition, Texas Central has partnered with several industry leaders: international railway company Renfe is the train’s operating partner; multinational firm Salini Impregilo – operating in the U.S. market with The Lane Construction Corporation – is leading the civil construction consortium building the train’s supporting infrastructure; and Bechtel, with operational headquarters in Houston, is on Texas Central’s project management services team.
In September, Texas Central executed a $14 billion design-build agreement with the Salini-Lane joint venture. This contract authorizes a set of early works to continue advancing engineering design, detailed planning, interface definition and other key prerequisites necessary to start construction. Specifically, the scope of work includes design and construction of all 131 viaducts and 130 embankment sections along the 240-mile route, installation of the track system, and construction of all buildings and services that will house maintenance and other rail system equipment.
The electric-powered bullet train’s design minimizes impacts to the surrounding natural and built environments. It will run mainly on elevated tracks and berms adjacent to existing infrastructure in a grade-separated corridor with no at-grade crossings. Three passenger stations – in Dallas, Houston and the Brazos Valley – are planned for the project. Preliminary construction plans also call for an estimated 10 million cubic yards of concrete, nearly 1,100 miles of steel rail and more than 1.4 million concrete railroad ties.
The Central Japan Railway Company will be supplying the rolling stock. “Right now, we’re scheduled for eight-car train sets that can carry about 400 people in each trip,” Reed says. Each locomotive will be equipped with Automatic Train Control as well as proprietary software and hardware to enhance safety, reliability and passenger comfort.
The safety and reliability of the Texas HSR system will be based not just on innovative technology, but also the track’s configuration. The Dallas-Houston route will have its own dedicated northbound and southbound tracks, which means the sleek, fast passenger trains will not mix with heavy, slow freight trains. Furthermore, the railway will have a very small footprint (up to 500 feet of right of way) compared to a road. “To move more people, you just run the trains more frequently. You do not have to add incremental lanes and access roads and things of that nature,” Reed notes.
The ridership experience is another major focus for the project team. Passengers will be able to review schedules, select seats, purchase tickets, change travel plans, order onboard food and drinks, reserve rental vehicles at their destination and book onward travel connections online or via mobile apps. Once aboard the train, travelers can enjoy a comfortable trip thanks to the two-by-two seating arrangement featuring spacious seats with plenty of leg, head and elbow room.
This modern transit system will have Wi-Fi and abundant power outlets as well as quiet, work-friendly cabins available.
A Time-Saving Travel Alternative
To journey between Dallas and Houston, most travelers use Interstate 45. Commute times along this stretch of highway often approach or exceed five hours, depending on road and weather conditions. With traffic in the area expected to rise 200 percent by 2035, the trek could take more than six-and-a-half hours due to increased congestion – even with planned roadway improvements.
Currently, 16 million vehicular trips are made between these two burgeoning regions each year. According to the most recent travel study conducted by L.E.K. Consulting (L.E.K.) on behalf of Texas Central, the Houston-North Texas corridor is expected to grow 1.5 percent each year over the next three decades. As a result, aggregate trips are estimated to balloon to about 40 million by 2050.
Air travel is another option for commuters. However, while flight time between the two regions is relatively short, research shows the overall trip duration more than doubles when pre-arrival time is considered. Furthermore, air transport is notoriously sensitive to inclement weather delays. Comparatively, high-speed rail is less vulnerable to most weather-related events.
Recent travel studies indicate HSR would make the overall connection between Dallas and Houston faster than air or auto travel. The Shinkansen N700S train coming to Texas will be capable of moving passengers between the two major population centers in less than 90 minutes, with departures every 30 minutes during peak travel periods and every hour during the remainder of the system’s 18-hour service day.
In a recent traveler survey, L.E.K. analysts found that most Dallas-Houston commuters would use the Texas high-speed train in the right circumstances. More than 80 percent of respondents indicated they would likely use the train service if it were available today.
“More Texans are on the move. The L.E.K. study shows that urban Texans are leaving their cars behind and demanding greater mobility choices, proving travelers want a better and more predictable way to travel. Most of the exponential growth in Texas is happening in these markets and the business and personal connections between them continue to deepen. The Texas high-speed train will give Texans the freedom and time through short, predictable and productive trips,” says Tim Keith, Chief Investment Officer, Texas Central.
There is no doubt Texas Central’s project will be transformational on multiple levels. Plus, it could potentially encourage other U.S. metropolitan areas to pursue HSR development. “We fully expect that once we are operational and people can ride the train, there will be great enthusiasm and a lot of excitement around having HSR in other places too,” Reed says.
Photos courtesy of Texas Central