Last week, the Houston Business Journal reported that high speed rail is coming to Houston.
At a speech at New York's Penn Station, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced that her office will soon begin "accepting expressions of interest to finance, design, build, operate and maintain high-speed trains on the Northeast Corridor and in 10 other federally-designated corridors around the nation."
And wonder of wonders - Houston is on one of the corridors.
Just think - you could take the bullet train to Austin for a UT game or SXSW show and head home and sleep in your own bed, merrymaking all the while without having to worry about going to jail. Or you could head over to San Antonio for a stroll and a margarita on the Riverwalk at dusk and make it back to your Heights bungalow by midnight. Or you could zip up to Dallas to... to... do whatever it is they do up there.
Or maybe not. All of this is a long way off, and down here, we've heard grandiose talk like this before. And then there's the fact that as the plan stands now, Houston lies at the western terminus of the Gulf Coast Corridor, connected to New Orleans and points north and east, but not to any other city in Texas. So Houston will have a passenger rail connection to Portland, Maine, but not the state capital or second and third largest cities in the state, all of which are on another corridor.
"This article - that has to be the 5000th one in the last 20 years," local businessman and passenger rail enthusiast Franklin Denson tells Hair Balls. "They just talk it to death. The thing about it that is so frustrating to me is that the technology is there. It's not anything new It exists in so many other places, but it seems like here especially in Texas, we just study it to death instead of building it."
In 1989 Denson founded the Texas Limited excursion train from Galveston to Houston. Despite solid popularity and the financial backing of Galveston mogul George Mitchell, the Texas Limited last choogled over the Causeway in 1994. Safety officials would not allow the train to travel more than 35 miles an hour, limiting the number of round trips it could make to one a day, Denson told the Chronicle in 1994. And even with the Texas Limited loping along at a mule's pace, insurance rates were sky-high.
Nevertheless, despite his skepticism over what practically amounts to yet another feasibility study, Denson believes that this could be the dawning of a new golden age for passenger rail.
He believes that Interstate travel's era is drawing to a close. "Nothing lasts forever and that's kinda run out of steam as we all know with what's going on in Detroit right now."
And then there are the airlines. Does anybody enjoy flying anymore? Denson doesn't, if he ever did.
"Airports today are like the Greyhound station: mobs of people that are slovenly dressed, with no concern about their appearance, and you've got to ride with 'em. I'd just as soon ride next to a bunch of sheep or cattle in a freight car."
And then there is the TSA and their fresh security line outrages. "What are we gonna do next - are we going to have to get naked?" Denson asks. "The airlines are unpleasant and overcrowded, so I think personally the time for rail is back. It doesn't have to be high-speed rail - if you went 100 mph to New Orleans, that would only take you a little over three hours. Right there you're already competitive with Southwest Airlines, when you factor in driving to the airport and parking and security and all that."
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And then there's that whole environmental angle. "Trains are much more fuel efficient, infinitely more environmentally friendly than ten-lane Interstates, and they are common everywhere else in the civilized world," Denson says. (Of which group some would say Texas is still a probationary member.)
Denson says that the disconnect between Houston and the other Texas metropolises looks like a simple oversight. "The line that runs from Houston to New Orleans and then on up to Meridian, Mississippi is an existing rail corridor," he points out. "And that's the same one that runs from Houston to San Antonio. Obviously there's a glitch there - why would you not connect San Antonio and Houston if you are already on the same corridor from New Orleans to Houston?"
Hair Balls put it to him that some have interpreted it as a sop to the airlines. "If that's the case, that's bullshit. If the Federal Government is gonna do this - and it looks like we are taking a step closer to socialism every day with the Federal government taking over businesses and loaning 'em money - why don't we just go whole hog and tell Southwest Airlines to deal with it?" he says. "Fly your planes and deal with it."
-- John Nova Lomax