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Federal action pushes Texas bullet train project toward fruition

A proposed high-speed railway would transport passengers from Northwest Houston to downtown Dallas in about 90 minutes.

Taking the United States’ first bullet train from the idea phase to actuality is proving to be a slow, drawn-out process.

But the groundbreaking project continues to progress and passed a significant marker last week when Texas Central, the Dallas-based company developing the high-speed train, announced that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) had granted its petition to have a custom set of rules created for the railway that would be used to ensure its safety and govern its system and operations. Texas Central filed the petition for the Rule of Particular Applicability in April 2016.

“This is a huge milestone in the history of the high-speed train,” said Holly Reed, Texas Central’s managing director of external affairs. “There’s still a lot of work to do.”

Reed said the company hopes the federal rules are in place during the first half of next year.

The FRA, which is an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation, released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement in December 2017 that outlined environmental concerns and a preferred route for Texas Central’s 240-mile track. Reed said Texas Central is in the process of tailoring its project to those specifications and hopes to have a Final Environmental Impact Statement from the FRA during the first half of next year as well.

If and when both federal hurdles are cleared, Reed said construction of the railway and its three stations – one of which is slated for the former Northwest Mall site at the intersection of U.S. 290 and Loop 610 – would begin.

“With the movement of both federal actions underway, if those come out early to mid-next year, we’ll start constructing next year, which means you would be riding the train in 2026,” Reed said.

There are other potential hurdles to what Reed called a “mega-project” that is being privately funded and is expected to cost in excess of $15 billion. She said Texas Central has secured about 30 percent of the land it would need to build an elevated railway between Houston and Dallas, with one stop in the Brazos Valley between College Station and Huntsville.

There have been legal questions about Texas Central’s authority to use eminent domain, an option afforded to private entities such as railroads as well as telecommunications and utility companies, in the event landowners along the proposed route are unwilling to sell.

A state district court judge in rural Leon County ruled in February that Texas Central is not a railroad because it has yet to lay any track or run any trains. A Harris County judge previously ruled that Texas Central is a railroad and could utilize eminent domain.

Reed said the company hopes to reach agreements with every landowner along its proposed route and sidestep the issue of eminent domain.

“But ultimately, if that is necessary and we’re forced to do that, will have to go down that path,” Reed said.

Texas Central’s ultimate objective is to revolutionize intrastate travel with a mode of transportation it claims is safe, economical and friendly to the environment. Reed said the company is purchasing high-speed technology from Central Japan Railway, which Texas Central said has transported more than 10 billion passengers since 1964 without an accident or an operational passenger fatality.

Reed said Texas’ bullet train, which aims to compete with automobile and air travel, would be powered solely by electricity, carry about 400 passengers, top 200 mph in speed and cost less than $100 to ride during non-peak times. She also said it would create jobs for Texans and boost commerce in both of the state’s largest cities.

The FRA’s action regarding the Rule of Particular Applicability took that plan a little closer to its final destination, which drew praise from Fort Worth-area congresswoman Kay Granger as well as Drayton McLane, Jr., the former Houston Astros owner who is Texas Central’s chairman of the board.

“It marks a major achievement to make this project a reality for all Texans,” McLane said in a statement posted on Granger’s website. “This is a bold move … to ensure we implement the safest passenger rail system in the world.”

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