TEXAS ON THE FAST TRACK
By Lynn Ashby 20 Feb. 2017
THE OFFICE – A fast train running between Houston and Dallas is such a good idea that rumors say President Donald Trump is considering adding high-speed rail in Texas to his priority list of national infrastructure projects. What an original idea. My grandfather would endorse the program. Actually he did, about 120 years ago. This is his conductor’s hat, black, round, with a bill and gold trim. “T&NO CONDUCTOR,” it reads. (That was the Texas & New Orleans.) My grandfather, for whom I am named and knew quite well – he and my grandmother lived next door – started out at 19 as a conductor on the Houston to Dallas route. Back then there were several trains running each way each day, as fast as speed allowed at the time (1900 to the 1950s).
Today’s high-speed trains are faster, and have run for years in France and Japan. Indeed, it is a Japanese company which plans to build a bullet train for us. But there are massive problems, so don’t pack your bags just yet. Remember then-Gov. Rick Perry’s Texas Triangle? It would connect the Metroplex to Houston, San Antonio and several towns in between. The roadway would carry cars, trains, utility wires and probably ox carts. Never got off the ground. The cost was astronomical (one strike), to be built by a Spanish company (strike two) and would take over strips of land across Texas as wide as 2,500 feet (yer out!).
This new plan, pushed by Texas Central Partners, Texas Central Railway or TCR, is meeting the same problems. Foreign company, farmers and ranchers don’t want a huge chunk of their land taken over, while county commissioners and lawmakers fear hundreds if not thousands of acres would be stripped from the tax rolls. TCR says no tax dollars would be used to build it, which still leaves the tax-roll situation. Backers are having other problems, too, like getting land routes into the downtowns, money and how to get their hands on rural land. TCR’s claimed “eminent domain” power as a railroad is very much in question, and is now being contested in state court, with trial set for July. However, “The Texas Bullet Train Project” as it is sometimes called, is receiving some high praise from supporters in Dallas — by both residents and elected officials. In a report by a Dallas TV station, supporters said they are getting excited about its economic impact to Dallas.
A few years ago, there were plans for a far more modest project than the bullet train: to run a train from Houston to Galveston. As I wrote at the time, the line was first estimated in 2005 to cost $350 million; then the projected cost nearly doubled to $650 million. In 2007 Galveston spent $350,000 for a study to see if the idea was feasible. The study said yes. In 2008, the city spent $850,000 in mostly federal money for an analysis to determine whether Congress would fund the project. Huh? This is no way to run a railroad. A project that was supposed to be completed by 2013 never even began.
And to think that railroads help make Texas what it is, from the beginning. Back on Dec. 16, 1836, the First Congress of the Republic of Texas chartered the Texas Rail Road, Navigation, and Banking Company to construct railroads “from and to any such points…as selected.” That’s my kind of governmental oversight. Nothing came of the iron horse until the 1850s when rail companies rose and fell with each economic boom and bust. The first lines went out from Houston, which made Swamp City very proud. If you look at an early map of Houston you will see rail lines branching out from downtown like spokes on a wheel. Even today, the official seal of the City of Houston sports an ancient locomotive and, with a nod to the future, ugly, black smoke billowing from its smokestack. The city’s motto was, “Where 22 railroads meet the sea.” That must have been one big splash.
With the line heading west, to cross the Brazos the railroad first used a ferry and inclined planes on each side of the river. This system was replaced in October 1858 by a low-water crossing. The Little Engine That Could had to chug mightily to gain the momentum necessary to climb up the steep grade on the opposite side. Soon rail lines crossed the state. The Houston and Texas Central was able to reach Corsicana in 1871, Dallas in 1872. So we had trains running back and forth between Houston and Dallas 145 years ago. But not now.
To handle this growing industry, the Railroad Commission, created in 1891, became one of the most powerful regulatory bodies in the state, but corruption was a constant problem as influential railway companies worked behind the scenes to control lawmakers and the government. Corruption, in the Texas Legislature? Get serious. Today substitute “railroads” for “oil, insurance and out-of-state casinos.” The Railroad Commission no longer has anything to do with railroads, and Texas has only two passenger lines running through it: The Texas Eagle from Chicago to San Antonio and the Sunset Limited from New Orleans to Los Angeles. Now Houston’s one station is a small but adequate facility, while the other one has been turned into a baseball stadium. Still, Texas continues to have more railroad mileage than any other state and the largest number of railroad employees. I didn’t know that, did you?
When was the last time you took a train (as opposed to being railroaded)? I have always loved trains, took Amtrak a few weeks, no bag search, metal detectors or seat belts. And if you have flown from Hobby to Love, or the other way, how long was it from your home to your hotel, or office to office? Maybe taking a train from Houston to Dallas would be a good idea. What do you think, Grandpa?
Ashby conducts at email@example.com