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Houston-to-Dallas Bullet Train Company Gets New CEO, Delays Rail Line

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Texas Central Partners, the company intent on building a high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas in the next few years, has once again gotten itself a new CEO. Just 16 months after taking the helm from Robert Eckels, Tim Keith is out (as CEO; he becomes president) and Carlos Aguilar is in, according to a Texas Central news release.

Keith is staying on the board, just as Eckels did before him, but it looks like Texas Central is moving in a new direction with Aguilar. Officially, the leadership change is being made because the controversial 240-mile-long bullet train project (people in the cities are into the idea, and the people in the places in between are vehemently against it, as we chronicled in last year's cover story) is moving from development to planning, engineering and construction, and Aguilar has lots of industrial and infrastructure construction experience.

That all sounds reasonable enough, but this also comes just as the start date for the line has been pushed back a year — it's now slated to begin toting passengers in 2022 — and just after last month's surprise presidential election results gave Donald Trump the White House.

Under this new setup, could it prove more difficult than expected for a company with Japanese ties selling a high-priced Japanese product, the Shinkansen high-speed rail line, to build the Houston-to-Dallas route under Trump?

President Barack Obama has been a proponent of high-speed rail — in 2009 he pledged $8 billion in funding to encourage the creation of high-speed rail projects in the United States. Of course, Obama's support of high-speed rail guaranteed conservatives were going to line up against it, and the governors of Wisconsin and Florida both canceled the projects in their respective states and gave the money back to the feds. Meanwhile, Texas lawmakers filed plenty of bills aimed at blocking the project during the last legislative session, in 2015.

And then there's Trump.

Trump isn't against high-speed rail projects per se. In fact, he's pledged to invest aggressively in infrastructure. While he was on the campaign trail earlier this year, he noted more than once that he thinks the federal government should be investing big in "super-speed trains."

However, there's no telling how Trump will view this particular company and project since it's got a lot of ties to Japan. Sure, Texas Central officials have insisted this is a Texas company and all, but the company is an offshoot of JR Central, a major high-speed rail company in Japan, and the project proposes to use the Shinkansen rail system, which has a flawless safety record and a high price tag. Plus, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been promoting exporting the Shinkansen technology for a while now, even offering Japanese loans to help finance such purchases.

Trump vaulted over more experienced contenders to become the Republican nominee and then the president-elect with his "America first" rhetoric about investing in U.S. industry and keeping jobs in the country. The not-made-in-America aspect of the project could rub Trump the wrong way.

Of course, it may not matter what Trump thinks since the company is supposed to be privately financed. On the other hand, Keith told the Houston Press last year that the company is hoping to score some federal grant money to help fund the project.

And the thing is, Texas Central may actually need those funds. Texas Central's efforts to get the line built don't seem to be moving forward as smoothly as hoped. Construction was slated to start in 2017, with passenger service kicking off by 2021. But now Texas Central is planning on opening the Houston-to-Dallas line in 2022 instead, according to the company's website.

In the wake of the election results, JR Central Chairman Emeritus Yoshiyuki Kasai visited Abe numerous times, towing along with him people tied to the U.S. high-speed rail projects, according to the Nikkei Asian Review. Those visits may signal a bit of worry about what the Trump win will mean for the rail projects.

It could just be a coincidence that the company got a new CEO and delayed the line's projected start date when it did. But on the flip side, this could signal that despite the cheerful design contest for a rail station Texas Central recently held and the confident tone in which it announced the leadership change, all is not going swimmingly for the company's efforts to make the Houston-to-Dallas line into a reality.

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