Texas Central's plan to build a bullet train line from Houston to Dallas is still in the works but now, intriguingly, there could be some new competition to bring rapid-speed mass transit to connect Houston and other major cities in Texas.
Hyperloop Texas, a proposal between engineering firm AECOM and various state agencies, has been selected as one of ten finalists of the Hyperloop One Global Challenge, a competition to find the most promising routes to build lines of large vacuum tubes that will transport people via pod cars shooting through the system at 700 mph.
The idea may sound like science fiction — which isn't surprising since it comes from Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX and this era's apparent king of the so-crazy-it-might-actually-happen-in-the-nearish-future ideas — but basically it's a large-scale version of the bank teller system people have used for drive-through banking for decades.
Specifically, the new concept is based on the "very high-speed transit system," an idea first pitched in 1972 as a train that floats on magnets and travels by being sucked through a low-pressure tube. Musk describes the Hyperloop as "a cross between a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table."
Musk's company, Hyperloop One, selected AECOM's pitch to build a "Texas Triangle" system that would allow travelers to get from Houston to San Antonio in 21 minutes, and San Antonio to Austin in only eight minutes. The 250-mile trek from Houston to Dallas would be roughly 48 minutes (although that excludes station stops.)
The Texas project is appealing to Hyperloop for the same reasons that the Houston-to-Dallas line made so much sense for Texas Central.
For one thing, Texas is massive and a lot of it is fairly flat, the kind of land that is good for farming and ranching or for building a major transportation project that would allow people to have choices other than flying or driving to get to one of the other cities.
Like Texas Central, Hyperloop researchers noted how the state's population has grown in the past decade and will continue to increase in the coming decades. More people in the state means more people needing to travel across the state, which will lead to choked roads and jam-packed flights with tickets selling for exorbitant rates, the logic goes.
And there will be more people going between the cities because Texas has an ever-increasing number of "super-commuters," people who drive more than 90 minutes or 180 miles to get to work. And only some of these people are simply recording their 90-minute commutes to get across Houston traffic. A New York University study found the number of super-commuters going between Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth has tripled since 2002 and the number traveling between Houston and either Austin or San Antonio has doubled.
When you add in the fact that much of the land between the largest cities in the state is still being used to farm or run cattle — meaning it hasn't been heavily developed — Texas makes a lot of sense.
But here's where things get interesting, because while the motivators behind choosing to focus on Texas lines are the same for both companies, it's arguable that Texas Central's plan to use Japan's famed Shinkansen technology to build its high-speed rail line is much more tangible and possible than what Hyperloop One is offering so far.
Japanese bullet train systems have been running since Japan Central (of which Texas Central is an offshoot) opened the first line between Tokyo and Osaka in 1964. Nowadays, Japan's Shinkansen trains are not the only high-speed rail lines on the market, but they are still the ones with the best record for both punctuality and safety. In more than 50 years of running, there has never been a fatality in a Japanese bullet train accident, an impressive feat considering a 2011 accident on one of China's high-speed rail lines killed 40, and in 2013 a Spanish high-speed train derailed, killing 79.
Texas Central's plans are based on proven technology, while the Hyperloop is still in fairly early planning stages, and has no record of any kind. In May 2016, the first Hyperloop test featured a 1,500-pound hunk of metal shooting down a short track and crashing into a pile of sand.
When the second test was conducted a year later, last May, the Hyperloop pod did better, floating above the track for about five seconds and reaching a speed of 70 mph, and in July the test was better still. The pod raced down a 500-meter-long test track in Nevada, reaching 192 mph before gliding to a stop. No crashing into sand that time around.
Despite all of this, many are already comparing Hyperloop and Texas Central and finding Texas Central wanting because Hyperloop is being pitched as a mode of transportation that will be completed and transporting freight by 2020 and passengers by 2021. In other words, the plan is to have the Hyperloop up and running two years before Texas Central's line, at nearly twice the speed of a bullet train.
That may sound enticing, but there's a catch. All of Hyperloop's plans are hypothetical at the moment. Aside from the fact that a single working line has yet to be built, the Hyperloop will have to go through the same regulatory procedures that Texas Central is now wading through, including a feasibility study and environmental review, a process that takes at least two years to complete. From there, Hyperloop officials will have to find a way to actually obtain land to build their lines on — either by buying it or forcing owners to sell through eminent domain.
Texas Central has already run into fierce opposition from people living along its proposed line, as we noted in our 2015 cover story. However, so far Hyperloop isn't even on the radar for Texans Against High-speed Rail, the anti-bullet-train group, founder Kyle Workman says.
"We're not paying a lot of attention to it, because it's early. But it's new, and that's something. With the high-speed rail line, that's old technology that's been around for 50 years, compared to Hyperloop, which is in front of us, a part of the future,” Workman says.
Still, Hyperloop apparently has one thing Texas Central has lacked — backing from elected state officials and some state agencies. Members of the Texas Legislature have filed bills in the past two biennial legislative sessions seeking to stop Texas Central from building its high-speed rail line, and so far the company has received very little in terms of government support.
That's not the case with Hyperloop. U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro, a San Antonio Democrat, publicly called on Hyperloop via Twitter back in July to build in Texas, and state legislators have also issued statements expressing their support of Hyperloop. On top of that, the Texas Department of Transportation has even partnered with Hyperloop Texas to come up with the Texas Triangle route proposal that has been selected as one of ten finalists to become Hyperloop One's first site.
Workman, the high-speed-rail opponent, says Hyperloop representatives have been contacting him, asking about how they can avoid attracting the opposition of Workman's group as their project moves forward. He explained that if they don't try to use tax dollars or eminent domain powers to construct their project, there will be no reason for anyone to oppose them. But he also admits that it may not be quite that simple if and when the Hyperloop project comes to fruition.
“People love looking into the future and the idea of new technology, but when it gets a little closer to becoming reality, some of them are going to change their minds,” he says. “Realistically, it's a lot more appealing before there's a line on a map. Before there was a line on a map running through Leon County for the bullet train, county officials would have said they were all for the idea. It was only after they saw it would run through the county that they changed their minds.”
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.