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The US Could Be Getting a New, ‘World Class’ High-Speed Train in the South

August 16 (Condé Nast Traveller) - Linking together Dallas and Houston by high-speed rail has long been in discussion, running into various hurdles over nearly three decades. But last week, Amtrak announced that it has joined the conversation with Texas Central, the company behind the current project. The two companies are “exploring” a potential partnership that could help speed up the launch of a railway that would transport passengers along the 240-mile route in less than 90 minutes.

Under current plans, trains would run every 30 minutes during peak times and hourly during off-peak times, with six hours off each night. The Dallas station would be in its Cedars neighborhood and Houston’s in the northwestern part of the city, with one stop in between at Brazos Valley, which would have shuttle service to Texas A&M University.

“It's a revival to a very viable project on an enormously popular route,” says Andy Kunz, president and CEO of US High Speed Rail Association. “It's highly congested on the highways, and flying is not very practical because of how short the flight is and how long you end up spending in each airport, so high-speed rail ends up being the winning mode between those cites.”

With about 100,000 people traveling between the two cities more than once a week, the ability to connect two of Texas’s biggest cities—which are also two of the nation’s top 10 most populous cities—is more than a convenience, but a need.

The collaboration could also help logistically. “This new partnership is a game changer because Amtrak has specifically enumerated powers as our nation’s nationally incorporated passenger railroad,” Jeans-Gail says. “These authorities could, among other things, allow Amtrak to finalize the establishment of a right of way between Dallas and Houston, which has been a big hurdle for Texas Central. Amtrak is also rapidly gaining experience in equipment procurement and station building, which will help speed project delivery.”

Together, the two entities have already jointly submitted applications to a number of federal programs—including the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure Safety and Improvements grant, the Corridor Identification and Development, and the Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail grant—to better envision and understand what it would take to turn the speedy service into a reality.

Texas Central had also already been working with Central Japan Railway Company, which runs 323 high-speed trains daily between Tokyo and Osaka, as its “preferred design build partners” the company said, especially hoping to model the train after its Tokaido Shinkansen total system.

Compared to Asia and Europe, the US is lagging in high-speed rail services. While Amtrak’s Acela starts to ramp up its speeds in the Northeast Corridor, the first true high-speed passenger rail will likely be Brightline's planned service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, followed by that in California’s Central Valley.

“Anytime you're starting something big and new like this, it's slow to get going,” Kunz says. “Once one of these is running, it’s going to cause a paradigm shift because everybody's going to see what this was all about and they're all gonna start clamoring for it.”

While the Amtrak collaboration is a useful jumpstart and a hopeful sign of things to come, it’s not absolutely necessary for the future of high-speed rail in America. “I think probably what we'll end up with is a patchwork [of systems],” Kunz says. “We'll have five or six lines around the country that are privately-owned, we'll have eight or ten that are public state systems, and we'll probably have a couple that are Amtrak operations.”

But Amtrak also understands the value of increasing its speed. “We believe many of the country’s biggest and fastest-growing metropolitan areas, like Houston and Dallas, deserve more high quality, high-speed, intercity rail service," Amtrak's senior vice president of high-speed rail development programs Andy Byford said. “We are proud to bring our experience to evaluate this potential project and explore opportunities with Texas Central so the state can meet its full transportation needs.”

Kunz adds that climate change and aviation industry issues “increases the urgency” of building the system as an alternative. “High-speed rail can operate right through blizzards, fog, fires, and all kinds of conditions,” he says. From an environmental standpoint, Amtrak says, the project is estimated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 100,000 tons annually, removing 12,500 vehicles from Interstate 45 daily, and saving 65 million gallons of fuel.

Yet logistical red tape have kept things from forging ahead. “The Texas Central project got bogged down in local lawsuits and lengthy federal permitting processes, which consumed too much of the startup’s capital reserves,” Sean Jeans-Gail, Rail Passengers Association’s vice president of government affairs and policy says, noting the organization has seen similar problems with other US intercity projects and is working with Congress to help these new rail services launch more easily.

Amtrak had been working with Texas Central on different initiatives since 2016, including a unified ticketing system. But last week’s announcement is a major step as they’re “currently evaluating a potential partnership to further study and potentially advance the project.”

The collaboration could be mutually beneficial. Since Amtrak is a government entity, it opens up the opportunity for Texas Central to apply for federal grants and loans, which the private company couldn’t have done on its own. Conversely, it also “catapults Amtrak into a new level of looking at world class high-speed rail rather than what we've had so far, which is pretty much a leftover slow rail system from decades ago,” Kunz says.

This article first appeared on Condé Nast Traveller.

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