There were serious proposals to build high-speed rail in Texas in the mid-1990s. The proposals never made it out of the station, though, largely because of fierce opposition by Southwest and the other airlines.
There is a legitimate debate whether high-speed rail makes sense for Texas. But this new proposal is any easy call because it is guaranteed to fail:
The idea of high-speed rail is being pushed again in a big way in Texas, and backers hope to have $12 billion to $18 billion high-speed trains running by 2020. This time, they say they have taken care to ensure the idea won’t fall flat the way a bullet-train push did some 15 years ago.
In the past, high-speed rail was not completed in Texas primarily because it was a top-down model driven by lobbyists out of Austin,” former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, chairman of the nonprofit Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corp., told lawmakers at a Wednesday transportation briefing.
This time, he said backers from the consortium — which includes elected leaders, cities, counties and two airlines among others — reached out to past opponents to try to solve their concerns. Among them: Southwest Airlines, which fought the last high-speed rail project as a potential competitor. Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz said the airline is neutral on this proposal.
The high-speed trains — with an average speed of 200 mph — would run to airports, allowing rail to work in conjunction with airlines by ferrying in passengers catching longer flights.
The rail would run along the so-called “Texas T-Bone” — from Dallas-Fort Worth through Austin to San Antonio, and branching off in Temple to Houston. More than 70 percent of Texans live in the area that would be served.
Texas airlines already offer frequent service among the "big four" -- Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio (except for Austin to San Antonio). In order for high-speed rail to make economic sense, it must offer an improvement over intrastate airline service. Merely being competitive won't justify the billions in construction costs.
I think high-speed rail travel might be better than intrastate flights if done right. To be better, the train trip (1) must not take too much longer than an airline flight and (2) must not be much more expensive. I think (1) is likely, at least for downtown-to-downtown travel. For me to travel to Dallas by plane, I must make a 20-minute drive to the airport; arrive at least 30- to 40-minutes before my flight to get through security; wait for the flight (and possible delays); endure a one-hour flight; and spend 20 minutes getting from Love to downtown. In practice, I can rarely make the trip in less than two-and-a-half to three hours.
A 200-mph, high-speed train trip might take, say, three and a half hours door to door if we allow three hours for the trip itself (an 80 mph average speed) and half an hour waiting for the train.
For a business traveler like me, this train trip would be much better than a plane trip because I would be more productive. I can only get about an hours' worth of work in if I fly. The rest of my time is wasted driving to the airport, going through security, etc. On the other hand, I would have three hours of productive time on a train. Plus I'd be more comfortable. I would gladly trade a little longer trip for that productivity and comfort. And I would be willing to pay much more for that train trip. If I got to keep most of that surplus, and there were enough other travelers like me, high-speed rail might make sense.
But this new proposal would eliminate much of high-speed rail's advantages. By requiring airport-to-airport travel, it would add at least 40-50 minutes to the trip -- more, if it was necessary to go through airport-security. The plane's time advantage over the train would grow from, say, one hour to almost two hours. And that time added to the train trip would be unproductive. Rail travel would be much less attractive for business travelers. This no doubt explains Southwest's "neutrality" on the proposal.
Claiming the rail would be a "feeder" for interstate flights is silly. We already have feeders for interstate plane travel. They have wings and flight attendants and park at the terminal gates. High-speed rail would have no advantage over planes as a feeder.
It's a good time to renew the debate over high-speed rail in Texas. But the debate needs to begin with a proposal that makes sense.