Is Dallas-Houston High-Speed Rail Viable?

One of the projects on the supposed Trump infrastructure priority list (which, I am 90 percent convinced, is not an official Trump administration list) was a Dallas-Houston high-speed rail line. When the Antiplanner called this project a boondoggle, I received an email from a supporter saying it will be entirely privately financed. While that would alleviate my objections, I remain skeptical that it could work.

The Texas Central project is backed by the Central Japan Railway and proposes to use Japanese high-speed rail technology in the 240-mile corridor from Dallas to Houston. Trains would make only one stop between those two cities, making the journey in 90 minutes at top speeds of around 200 miles per hour.

Japan’s Tokyo-Osaka line makes money, but when it was built the corridor had twice as many people as Dallas-Houston and few of those people owned automobiles. Around 70 percent of the corridor’s travel at the time was low-speed rail, while not much more than 10 percent was by car and less than a percent was by air. By comparison, around 90 percent of trips in the Dallas-Houston corridor are by car, 7 percent by air, and a small number are by bus.

In today’s dollars, the Tokyo-Osaka line cost more than $50 million a mile to build, but at the time it was built trains went only 135 miles per hour. Most of Japan’s other lines cost more to build and carry far fewer riders than the Tokyo-Osaka line. Though most earn enough fares to cover their operating costs, they failed to cover their capital costs.

Based on this, the Dallas-Houston line will cost more than $12 billion to build, probably a lot more. High-speed rail also imposes very high maintenance costs as it requires lots of extremely precise infrastructure. Other than air traffic control, the only infrastructure required by air travel is a few acres of concrete and some terminal buildings, neither of which are expensive to maintain.

People in the Tokyo-Osaka corridor are also far more densely populated than between Houston and Dallas, which means they are closer to train stations. The route also has 17 stations, not just the three proposed for the Texas line. Fewer stops means faster trains but also fewer people near a station.

Southwest, American, and United Airlines currently offer dozens of flights a day between the two Houston and two Dallas airports. Typical flights take 60 minutes and prices start at under $100. Texas Central says that downtown-Houston-to-downtown-Dallas times on the train will be faster than flying, but only about 4 percent of workers in the Dallas-Ft. Worth and Houston areas work in downtown Dallas or Houston. With two airports to choose from in each urban area, it is likely that more people live and work closer to an airport than to a downtown train station.

Texas Central’s ridership analysis projects that the train will capture nearly 25 percent of travel between Dallas and Houston (p. 11). I don’t know what percent of travel is carried by the Tokyo-Osaka train, but Amtrak carries just 6 percent of travel between Boston and Washington (p. 4). Amtrak trains aren’t as fast as Texas Central proposes, but the Northeast corridor is also far more congested than the Texas corridor, so slower trains could still be competitive. The Northeast Corridor also has far more people than the Texas corridor, which makes Texas a less viable candidate for high-speed rail.

The Japanese are also promoting a mag-lev proposal between Baltimore and Washington, while the Chinese are promoting a high-speed rail line from Las Vegas to a point outside of Los Angeles. I suspect that what’s really going on is that companies in these countries are trying to sell their technology. Perhaps they intend to build the lines themselves, but it is most likely that they will end up seeking government support.

The European Union says that high-speed rail projects need 6 million to 9 million annual riders to be viable, and they are only talking about covering operating costs. The Texas Central projects that it will carry 5 million riders by the mid-2020s and 10 million by 2050. Five million isn’t enough, and 2050 is a long way away–too long for most investors to wait and too long to accurate predict what will happen with other transportation technologies.

Certainly by 2050, self-driving cars will dominate highways. People in self-driving cars will be less time sensitive than people who have to drive cars, so the time advantage of high-speed rail will be less important, while the auto’s door-to-door convenience and ability to stop at any point in the middle of a journey will outweigh the train’s time advantage.

People who car share might take a shared car to a train station, then the high-speed train to another city, then a shared car to their final destination. But no one really knows what people will do with self-driving cars, so betting $15 billion or so today on a technology that almost no one in the United States uses is pretty risky.

The other possible change between now and 2050 is in air travel. Installation of more advanced air traffic control systems will relieve congestion and speed take-offs and landings. Improvements in security will speed the boarding process. It might even be possible to build more airports in major urban areas so Dallas and Houston-area residents can choose from four or five locations at either end.

Supposedly, the only high-speed rail lines in the world that make money are Tokyo-Osaka, Beijing-Shanghai, and Paris-Lyon. In fact, Beijing-Shanghai only began to cover its operating costs after several years, and still hasn’t covered its capital costs. I haven’t been able to find detailed data verifying that Paris-Lyon actually makes money. Tokyo-Osaka was profitable mainly because it was built before many people in Japan had cars.

I would be happy if this project could work. But almost all other high-speed rail lines in the world lose gobs of money, and I can’t see any reason why Dallas-Houston will be an exception.


12 thoughts on “Is Dallas-Houston High-Speed Rail Viable?

  1. prk166

    I’m curious if Paris-Lyon has ever been truely profitable. One problem at play is for capital costs to be properly included. I don’t know if they’ve ever paid the full price. It may be that they cut maintnence on other lines because they kept the infrastructure charge too low.

    The other squeeze is coming from the rising track costs TGVs have to pay to Réseau Ferré de France, the owner and operator of the rail lines. This will continue even when RFF and SNCF’s train operating units (TGV, suburban and regional and freight) are brought under one holding company. About 40% of the cost of a TGV ticket goes to cover these track tolls, which have risen by more than half since 2007. The increase is needed to pay for the upkeep of the rest of the French rail network which is creaking and crumbling, notably in the Paris region.

  2. prk166

    Has their been any legislatures in Texas that have looked at beefing up the law regarding this? In Minnesota a few in SE MN have introduced legislation to make sure Zip Rail is truly privately financed. Even if the legislation isn’t passed, it can further the public awareness. In the case of Zip Rail, I suspect most folks hadn’t asked the question of how does the rail line – one they want to foolishly build straight up US52 – get cleaned up? After all they’re talking about it being elevated. This legislation would do a few things including ensuring that the builders clean up their own mess.

  3. LazyReader

    If it’s privately financed who gives a shit if it fails or not.
    The distance between Houston and Dallas is 225 miles, typical highway speed and traffic means it would take over 3 1/2 hours to drive it. A high speed, autobahn-esque lane on the interstate would certainly take some time off. A bus going 80 mph would clear it in less than 3 hours so a fleet of “High Speed” buses would clean house against the train, not by virtue of speed, but by virtue of cost.

  4. prk166

    This is not your normal charter bus. Our custom- configured coaches contain only 16 first-class seats versus the 56 seats of a same-size charter bus. Need a private workspace to discuss an important project or case? Reserve a conference room so you and your team can enjoy our service while collaborating behind closed doors. Our on-board service makes you feel like you’re on a private jet, and lets you make the most of your valuable time compared to your peers traveling with one of those cattle-call airlines.

  5. CapitalistRoader

    It looks like the speed limit on I-45 is 75mph now. Adding a dedicated high speed lane to the highway would be pretty cheap, and automated vehicles could easily cruise at >100mph in that lane in perfect safety with zero stops. And no need for additional local transportation to/from the train station.

    I have the feeling that high speed train manufacturers are desperate to get into the US market before AVs become ubiquitous. Once AVs reach a majority market share no one will willingly take a train outside of New York City or downtown Chicago.

  6. Sandy Teal

    $12 Billion on a niche market that could never get much bigger or else air travel would steal the high end travelers and luxury bus would steal the low end? Nobody would invest in that, even if it pencilled out a profit. Buying Texas ranchland would have a higher return.

  7. prk166

    One of the issues is in exporting their HSR lines are loans. The Japanese government gave India a loan for most of the cost of building India National Railways new HSR line. In the United States, we need to be mindful of what that means. If the “privately” financed project goes south, it can mean a foreign government – or at least a corp they directly own and control – owning infrastructure in the United States. Is that something we want to risk?

  8. CapitalistRoader

    If the “privately” financed project goes south, it can mean a foreign government – or at least a corp they directly own and control – owning infrastructure in the United States. Is that something we want to risk?

    Foreign companies have owned US infrastructure for years. As far as I’m concerned if the Central Japan Railway corporation wants to dump $12 billion into some Texas boondoggle, more power to them. Providing of course that taxpayers aren’t on the hook for a single dime. That means no eminent domain takings too. No government involvement whatsoever aside from permitting, etc.

  9. transitboy

    Is Texas Central going to develop real estate near their stations to make additional money and stimulate demand? That’s how rail networks in Hong Kong and Japan make money.

    LazyReader – can you present a citation for the 120 mph buses? I haven’t heard of a bus currently in production that would be safe to operate at that speed. Can’t imagine what the fuel economy would be.

    Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston should be expected to continue to grow unless the Texan economy tanks. Perhaps it’s easier to expand an airport in Texas, but in Southern California any airport expansion (except the one nobody wants to go to in Ontario) is politically impossible.

  10. Jardinero1

    Their goal is to run a total of about 16,000 passengers a day by 2025. This is not unrealistic because currently there are 55,000 autos and about 8,000 airline passengers daily between Houston and DFW. Soutwest Airlines would prefer to use its gates at Hobby and Love Field for more profitable international and interstate routes. There has been no complaining from any airline company about this proposal. It would not surprise me if they cede all their passengers to the rail line on a code sharing arrangement, just like airlines do today with one another. The Houston station will not be downtown but near Northwest mall which is the geographic center of all employment in the metro area. The first thirty miles out of Houston will be elevated on pylons. The at-grade portion below the pylons is part of a TXDot high capacity transit corridor study area. TCR has every intention of sub-letting the developing the at grade portion to what ever transit mode is selected there. I guess that it will be more rail or high speed bus. The station at College Station is not expected to take many passengers but will allow a dog leg to Austin/San Antonio in the future.

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