One of the world's largest train operators says that its proposal of a passenger rail network that includes the Interstate 35 corridor would be a better fit for Texas than the $15 billion Dallas-to-Houston bullet train that's on the table.
Maryland-based SNCF America, a branch of the French National Railway, pitched its "Texas T-bone" idea to the Federal Railroad Administration in 2008 and 2016. The plan calls for "higher speed rail" service of 125 mph.
The railroad administration has instead proceeded to work with Texas Central Partners on a Dallas-to-Houston bullet line featuring speeds up to 210 mph and using Japanese technology.
"Of course, SNCF, the state-owned and highly-subsidized French National Railway would declare they are against competition and block the world's best high-speed train technology from coming to the U.S.," Texas Central said in a prepared statement.
SNCF concedes that the Shinkansen bullet trains in the Texas Central plan are safe, comfortable and reliable. However, they and others say the technology is not compatible with that currently in use in the U.S.
If Texas Central Partners is first on the ground in the U.S., SNCF officials feel it may be game over for their firm and any other competition.
Currently, federal regulations do not address equipment requirements for train speeds above 150 mph. Texas Central Partners has petitioned for what is known as a rule of particular applicability (RPA). If the RPA is accepted and Texas Central successfully builds the nation's first bullet line, it will be creating the standard.
"I think they have done a remarkable job. They are fighters and go-getters," Leray said Monday of Texas Central. "Their chances of getting an RPA elsewhere becomes so much greater if they get this."
In Austin and Waco, SNCF officials are hoping to connect with others who lost out on the Dallas-to-Houston project.
The company says its T-Bone plan incorporates more existing right-of way because faster trains need longer stretches to absorb hills and curves. Much of the opposition to the Texas Central plan comes from landowners opposed to eminent domain.
"When you're condemning all these people to use I-35, that's a strain on public highway infrastructure," Leray said. "The Texas Legislature is going to have to have a say."
The bottom line, SNCF America says, is that it's proposed line would cost about half as much per mile to build. The firm says its entire, 480-mile T-bone network could be built at a cost just slightly higher than a single leg of the 763-mile, Dallas-Houston-San Antonio "Texas Triangle" that Texas Central proposed and federal officials first envisioned.
While North Central Texas Council of Governments officials are working with planners for a commuter line from Fort Worth to Waco, Temple-Killeen, Austin, San Antonio and Laredo, Texas Central is not committed to providing that service.
Texas Central says the ticket price for a 90-minute trip from Dallas to Houston on the bullet line would compare favorably with airfares. Opponents question whether the project can truly be privately funded considering that a plane ticket to Houston is about $200 — making the infrastructure cost alone equal to 75 million ticket purchases.
The T-bone plan calls for a three-hour trip to Houston, made 27 minutes quicker if the network is built as a hybrid, with the 210-mph trains running from Temple to Houston.
Operations-wise, Leray said, rail can be profitable. His parent company moved 14 million passengers and made $855 million in profit from operations last year. But its debt service is overwhelming and needs billions of government support.
Similarly, he believes the Texas T-bone plan, Texas Central's Triangle plan, or any higher-speed rail proposal would require public funding to get off the ground— and many years before benefits to the public outweigh the tax-supported infrastructure costs.
"Twenty billion dollars is actually a cheap high-speed rail project and an entry door to a huge market in the United States," Leray said, adding that he also feels a duty "to answer to a plan that would kill the I-35 corridor."