The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed the progression of Texas Central’s bullet train project and could end up derailing it.
Dallas-based Texas Central, which plans to build a high-speed railway between Dallas and Houston, laid off 28 employees last week, according to multiple reports. CEO Carlos Aguilar said in a March 27 news release that the company is being impacted by the economic downturn associated with the global outbreak of COVID-19, the upper-respiratory disease caused the new coronavirus strain.
“Like other companies and organizations around the world, we are trying to make the best use of the funding we currently have, paying close attention to COVID-19 updates and putting plans in place to move our project forward as soon as the world is on the other side of this uncharted territory,” Aguilar said.
The former Northwest Mall site near the intersection at U.S. 290 and Loop 610 is the planned Houston station for the bullet train project, which would take passengers between Texas’ two largest cities in a matter of about 90 minutes. Texas Central has said it hopes to break ground on its 240-mile railway by the end of this year, and complete construction by 2026, but that timeline could be in jeopardy.
The privately funded project, which plans to utilize Japanese railway technology, has investors all over the world and has enlisted an international team. Texas Central announced last September that it had signed a design-build contract with Italian engineering contractor Salini Impregilo and its U.S. subsidiary, Lane Construction Company, worth an estimated $14 billion. Texas Central’s system operator is Renfe, which is based in Spain.
Italy, Spain and the U.S. have been the hardest-hit countries by COVID-19 in terms of the number of cases. There have been more than 823,000 cases across the globe, according to the World Health Organization, along with more than 40,000 deaths caused by the disease.
“This is one of those moments where we have to acknowledge how small our world really is,” Aguilar said. “Our financial partners are in those countries, as well as here in the United States. Understanding the impact of COVID-19, and the challenges those countries and the U.S. are facing, is a new fact of life. We are already implementing work from home and other measures to deal with the crisis, but still do not know what other impacts this will have.”
There are other hurdles Texas Central must clear before seeing its high-speed rail project come to fruition. The company said last fall that it had secured about 30 percent of the land it would need to construct an elevated railway, and there are legal questions about Texas Central’s ability to utilize eminent domain.
Texas Central also is awaiting approval from the federal government to move forward. The Federal Railroad Administration must issue a Final Environmental Impact Statement and devise a custom set of rules for the railway that would be used to ensure its safety and govern its system and operations.
If and when the project gets to the point of construction, Texas Central said that work will create 17,000 jobs.
“Our immediate next step is to continue working with our partner organizations and federal and state agencies, led by the Federal Railroad Administration, to finalize our permits. The current schedule we have from the federal government anticipates that will happen by July 31,” Aguilar said. “From an execution standpoint, the project is shovel-ready. Once we receive our permit approval, our ability to begin construction will be contingent upon financial entities in the United States, Europe and Japan, all of which are dealing with urgent priorities generated by COVID-19, completing their due diligence process.”