MY OFFICE – Among the many family photos I have on my wall — true, some are front and side shots with numbers across their chests — is this one, taken on Sept. 3, 1900. It’s of locomotive number 183, with a coal car and several cars behind. Lined up in front are the train’s crew, including Walter Lynn Cox, the 19-year-old conductor. He’s my maternal grandfather who came to Texas at 9 months old in a covered wagon. I bore you with my family history because my grandfather, who lived next door to us, gradually worked his way up the corporate ladder to Grand Wizard or some such title, one stop being the conductor on the Houston-to-Dallas passenger route. That’s a novel idea, running a passenger train between these two major Texas cities. Actually, at one time there were several trains making that route each way daily.
Now some folks are trying it again with an operation variously called The Texas Bullet Train, The Texas High-Speed Rail, the Texas Central High-Speed Rail, and the private company developing it, Texas Central. They plan to build a bullet train route of 240 miles going 200 mph between Houston and Dallas, perhaps with a stop at Bryan/College Station. Running time from H-Town to Big D: 90 minutes. During rush hours trains would leave every 30 minutes.
There is a whole lot for us to consider, and many Central Texans are biting the bullet, so to speak. For instance, does that 90 minutes mean only the time on the rails? Southwest Airlines flies between Hobby and Love Field in 55 minutes, but these days we’ve got to add on the time spent going through security, taking off your boots, wig, and gun belt while standing there as the TSA bag inspector holds up a Hustler and asks loudly, “Is this the latest issue?” Then you wait to board but are delayed because of bad weather. An actual plane trip can take hours. Also, can the booze cart on the plane generate the same camaraderie as the bar car? The proposed line in Houston would run through northwest Harris County roughly along U.S. 290 and head north after Hockley, but the trains probably can’t go 200 mph through the Heights. Will the stations be covered, air conditioned and downtown or in Quonset huts located north of Conroe and south of Oak Cliff? Do you get frequent rail miles?
Then there is the money. It’s always about the money, isn’t it? The project will cost billions. Texas Central has said since 2016 it is privately funded. Much of the money will come from the Japan Bank of International Cooperation. But company officials have said they may look at federal loan programs open to most railroads and public agencies to finance some of the project. Wait a minute. Federal loans? Is that a first step? The company is also dangling lots of jobs. A Houston Chronicle headline cited “billions of jobs” even though the story didn’t say so. As for using local talent, Texas Central has hired Italian construction giant Salini Impregilo to lay the high-tech rails. It will purchase the trains from Central Japan Railway. They will be a Shinkansen N700S — the latest model used in Japan for more than 50 years, only this version is lighter and faster — and has a contract with Spanish rail operator Renfe to run the show. Just how many Texans get jobs?
Bureaucracy gets involved. Federal agencies from the EPA to the Surface Transportation Board to OSHA and the Federal Railroad Administration are having a say. We must suppose that one government department will not take it up: The Texas Railroad Commission, which dropped all connections with railroads in 2005. Another problem is NIMBY, Not in My Back Yard. The line will run through 11 Texas counties and there is organized opposition to this project. County judges argue that the line could take hundreds of acres off the tax rolls. Angry landowners have refused to allow surveys for the line through their back 40. There is also eminent domain. Landowners have gone to court to oppose the company’s right to condemn property since Texas Central owns no tracks or trains – yet — it can’t cite the eminent domain rights for railroads under Texas law. A district judge in Leon County ruled the company was not entitled to eminent domain rights. It’s being challenged. The company is attempting to avoid going through private property while offering to buy land above its appraised value. Texas Central already has a preferred route with roughly 30 percent of parcels needed purchased.
But there are positives to this plan, if true. The project Rail is expected to have a $36 billion positive economic impact on the city of Houston through a promised 1,500 jobs needed for operation. Officials estimate that 14,500 cars will be taken off of I-45 a day, cutting down on wrecks, pollution and DUIs. This last point is significant. Think of every Saturday in the fall after football games at College Station. Hordes of drunk Aggies won’t have to drive back to Houston or Dallas. I hope the backers of the bullet train pull it off, but don’t pack your bags yet. They say constructions may begin before the end of 2020 and is expected to take up to six years.
Back to my grandfather. On one trip my mother, then a little girl, and her mother were passengers and my grandfather was the conductor. A passenger said he didn’t have a ticket and wasn’t going to buy one. Walter Lynn Cox opened a window, stuck the guy’s head out the window and slammed it down on his neck, then proceeded to kick him in the butt. My mother and grandmother started crying. Then grandpa pulled the guy to the door, tossed him out of the moving train and threw his bag after him. Oh, I do love trains.
Ashby is trained at firstname.lastname@example.org