Beddingfield, a petite woman who holds herself so ramrod straight that she seems tall, wasn’t going to make it any easier for the man. She greeted him and waited.
“I’d like to buy some land from you,” the stranger said. His company was building a high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston, he explained, and needed a strip of land through her ranch — the place is so big that almost every proposed infrastructure project must pass through it — and was prepared to offer a fair price for it.
“This land is not for sale at any price,” Beddingfield replied.
“Everyone has a price,” he answered.
“Honey, you have just met someone who doesn’t,” she said.
That was the beginning of a long and drawn-out fight to stop the first Texas bullet-train project, Beddingfield, now 74, says. She and her husband, Jimmy, worked with rural legislators and lobbyists, haunted the Capitol building in Austin and held protests on the steps of the building. “It was a rough fight,” she says now.
Beddingfield’s ranch is again in the crosshairs for a high-speed rail line. A few months ago, she got a letter from Texas Central Partners, the private company that wants to build a bullet train that will rip through her land. Beddingfield hasn’t responded, and instead keeps the letter stuck in the bottom corner of the hall mirror so she’ll remember it every time she passes by. This time around, she knows exactly where the line will go. She jabs a finger at the gently undulating hills to the right of the family home her father built more than 100 years ago.
“The bullet train will come through here. It will be right next to us,” she says, pointing to a stretch of land where her glossy black cattle graze.
Beddingfield has devoted her life to this ranch, which has been in the family since a Spanish land grant in the 1800s, and every decision she has made has been based on what would be best for the ranch. The bullet-train line would require a strip of land at least 100 feet wide. While that’s only a sliver of property, Beddingfield and others are convinced the train will devalue their land.
The line will be modeled after the Shinkansen rail network in Japan. The tracks themselves, one set going in each direction, will be impassable in most places, running along a solid, 14-foot-high berm surrounded by security fencing. Texas Central has promised to elevate as many sections as needed to accommodate vehicles, farm equipment and cattle, but Beddingfield and her neighbors are skeptical and expect that when construction rolls around, Texas Central will build as few underpasses as it can get away with. In Beddingfield’s case, it would upend the Busy B system of working cattle that she and her husband, who died three years ago, spent more than 50 years creating, posing a threat to her life’s work.
Sitting in his full-size model of a locomotive engine, located upstairs in the “train room” of his home in The Woodlands, Bob Leilich, a railroad consultant with more than 40 years experience in planning rail lines, can already picture himself arriving at a new station, walking through the lobby — without any stops at the Transportation Security Administration — stepping onto a bullet train and settling into a plush seat while the train moves quietly through the Central Texas countryside at 205 mph between 14-foot-high walls that keep obstructions, like cows, off the line, and then glides into downtown Dallas 90 minutes later. “The bullet train is remarkable,” Leilich says. “These trains are so beautifully constructed that you travel at more than 200 mph and the only way you’d know it is looking out the window or a slight jitter in your teacup as the train moves.”
He argues that traffic between Dallas and Houston is only supposed to get worse — the Texas Department of Transportation has issued a report saying the driving time between the two cities will increase from four hours to six by 2035. On top of that, the state’s population is predicted to double by 2050, according to a report by the Office of the State Demographer. Leilich says it makes more sense to go with high-speed rail expansion than to simply widen roads. “Additional lanes are expensive, they take up more space and they aren’t used full-capacity all the time. It’s a waste of resources. A high-speed rail system gets more capacity for the cost and the right of way it takes up. It’s the sensible thing to do.” Besides, he notes, getting one of the first high-speed rail lines in the country would revolutionize transportation systems in Texas and tie two of the largest cities in the state — cities that, despite a long-treasured rivalry, have more in common than they do dividing them — and possibly start the United States on a path toward using high-speed rail.
The Texas Central project will use Japanese N700-I bullet-train technology and some Japanese funding. It will cost more than $10 billion, bring in 10,000 construction jobs and connect two of the largest metro areas in the state, according to board member Robert Eckels, the front man of the company.
While news of the project has sparked giddy enthusiasm in Houston and Dallas based on the prospect of greater economic growth, word of the Dallas-to-Houston line has met with resentment, distrust and heated opposition among the people who live in the places in between.
Kyle Workman, a founding member of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, maintains Texas Central will use eminent domain to take land from people in rural counties but they won’t get anything out of it. “People think that there’s nothing out here, but people out here ranch and farm. They use this land, and the bullet train is going to plow right over them,” Workman says.
On the other hand, Eckels insists this is a chance that Texas can’t afford to pass up. “This is one of those transformational projects that will bring Texans closer together and provides a transportation that you don’t have in other parts of the country,” he says. “We have the capacity to do it and it’s privately funded, so it won’t cost taxpayers anything.”
Still, no matter which way you cut it, the high-speed rail line is an enormous undertaking requiring billions of dollars in funding to allow construction workers to reshape and repurpose 3,000 acres of land between Houston and Dallas. Texas Central officials say the line will be a reality in the next six years.
It would be a revolutionary project. The question remains whether the high-speed rail line will unite people across the state or further exacerbate a growing divide in Texas between those who reside in the cities and those who live in the country. Will the Dallas-to-Houston line recast how people travel in Texas, or will it create a cavernous breach, with the bullet train snaking from city to city while rural outposts sink further into isolation?
At one time, all of Texas was connected by train, but the advent of the then-controversial interstate highway system in the 1950s and improved air travel shifted people away from passenger rail. When passenger rail collapsed in the 1960s and 1970s, it was replaced by more highways, according to Kyle Shelton, a transportation historian at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. People started traveling by air, car or bus, creating a patchwork system to get around the state. (Today Jasper, Cherokee, Anderson and Henderson are the only counties with more than 25,000 people located more than 25 miles from the nearest bus stop or train station, according to the American Intercity Bus Riders Association.)
Then there was the Trans-Texas Corridor, the plan to crisscross the state with 4,000 miles of privately developed tollways, railways and utility lines. The plan, then-Gov. Rick Perry’s baby, was fiercely opposed by rural constituents who formed subregional planning commissions to fight it. The Trans-Texas Corridor met its demise in the state legislature in 2009. But Lois Kolkhorst, who led the charge against the project as a state representative, wasn’t content with defeating the Trans-Texas Corridor. In 2011, she came back with HB 1201, legislation that scrubbed every reference to the Trans-Texas Corridor from the state statute. Perry had to sign into law the bill that obliterated even the mention of his pet project.
Texas Central officials hoped to dodge the political tangle that comes with a government-funded infrastructure project by keeping the high-speed rail line private. The Dallas-to-Houston line is the brainchild of Texas Central, cooked up by one of the founders, Richard Lawless. As an Asia hand with the CIA and the U.S. Department of Defense, he was stationed for extended periods in Japan, where he developed a fascination with the Shinkansen bullet train. It wasn’t so much the train’s 200 mph speeds that impressed him as it was its “credibility as a transit system.” The Shinkansen was, quite simply, the best way to get around Japan — impeccably safe, completely reliable and incredibly easy to use. As a result, the system became a transformative force in Japan, both shaping and driving economic growth.
During his career, Lawless had developed a friendship with the chairman of Central Japan Railway, or JR Central. Over dinner one evening in 2008, they mused about the possibility the company’s recently introduced fifth-generation bullet-train system, the N700-I, might be ready for export. “Have you looked at taking the complete system overseas?” Lawless asked him. “He said, ‘You know, it’s time to do that.’”
Lawless, who’d just left the Defense Department, gathered consultants and rail experts and spent the next several months studying the possibility. The most obvious place for high-speed rail in the United States — the heavily populated Boston-New York-Philadelphia corridor — was ruled out immediately because of the density of development and because it was already served by Amtrak. Also off the table was California, where a separate rail project was being planned. They whittled the other 97 corridors down to five that seemed likely to attract funding and turn a profit. In 2009, a year after their dinner, Lawless and JR Central partnered to create a U.S. company, U.S.-Japan High-Speed Rail, to push for the development of high-speed rail along one of the five identified linkages: Los Angeles-Las Vegas; L.A.-Phoenix; Tampa-Orlando-Miami; and both Dallas-Austin-San Antonio and Dallas-Houston.
The Dallas-Houston route presented the best option. The terrain between the cities is flat, with no mountains to tunnel through or major waterways to bridge. It is also sparsely populated, which minimizes right-of-way costs and messy eminent-domain battles. The cities are 240 miles apart, in the middle of what rail experts describe as the 200- to 300-mile “sweet spot” — too far to comfortably drive but close enough that time savings from traveling by air are basically nonexistent. The Dallas and Houston areas are large and economically dynamic, with abundant commerce between the two.
Lawless and JR Central weren’t the first to look at Dallas and Houston and envision a bullet train. The most serious proposal began in 1989 as Japanese and European train makers searched for a foothold in the untapped U.S. market and the Texas Legislature created the Texas High-Speed Rail Authority. A consortium led by French train manufacturer GEC Alsthom beat out a German-led group, Texas FasTrac, and was awarded a 50-year franchise in 1991. Texas TGV proposed to link the “Texas Triangle” — Dallas, Houston and Austin/San Antonio — estimating ridership at nearly 12 million passengers a year. The deal fell apart three years later when Texas TGV missed a fundraising deadline, which was precipitated by the group’s failure to lift a federal cap on the amount of tax-exempt bonds the company could issue. Ben Barnes, a former Texas lieutenant governor who worked with Texas TGV, blames Southwest Airlines for scuttling the deal.
Indeed, Dallas’s hometown airline attacked the project with delirious fervor. Herb Kelleher, the airline’s flamboyant co-founder and chairman, described Texas TGV’s proposal variously as a “gussied-up prairie schooner,” a “Conestoga wagon with lights” and a “backwards somersault into the 19th century.” He predicted that the rail line’s inevitable default on $6 billion worth of bonds would “make the savings and loan collapse look like the loss of Park Place when you’re playing Monopoly” and warned that it was “the kind of project that could lead to a personal income tax” in Texas.
Southwest, meanwhile, was outmaneuvering bullet-train supporters in both Austin and Washington. “Herb Kelleher won the chess game,” Barnes says. The commission shut down and the idea of high-speed rail was dropped.
Texas Central started holding public information meetings at various locations along the potential route last fall. When Mark Klein, president of the Super Neighborhood 12 Council in northwest Houston, examined the route and realized it could go through neighborhoods on the northwest side of the city or up the Washington Avenue corridor, he started organizing against the project. Neighborhoods including Garden Oaks, Inwood Forest, Independence Heights and First Ward formed coalitions against the bullet train, even though Texas Central officials say they don’t plan on going through those neighborhoods. “We’re not against it entirely like the people in the rural counties. We aren’t taking a stand the way Montgomery County is, but there’s a way where this train, which won’t be benefiting many people, can avoid established neighborhoods,” Klein says.
Klein set up a meeting in January at Lutheran High North in Houston. About 350 people showed up — more tried to get in but were forced to turn away because of a lack of parking, Klein says. Eckels stood up front in the school gym and gave his spiel. People listened, politely lined up at the microphone to question Eckels and then yelled at him about how the train was going to destroy their communities.
Initially, Texas Central was looking at a handful of different routes, but in February, officials announced they’d selected a line that will go from downtown Dallas, following a high-voltage utility corridor through nine rural counties before following U.S. 290 to the 610 Loop. Eckels says the company hopes to run the line into the northwest side of Houston and then to move along the Interstate 10 corridor into downtown Houston. However, many critics have pointed out that the route Texas Central has chosen is only the proposed route it submitted to the Federal Railroad Administration. It’s still unclear where the line will actually go.
“We get people that yell at us and people that like us,” Eckels says. “It’s still unsettled, and I fully understand why people are unnerved by that. There’s a lot of uncertainty about the exact route. We are very sympathetic to that, and we are willing to compensate any landowners and to work with rural landowners to make sure they don’t lose access to their land.”
Eckels says Texas Central has no intention of going through established neighborhoods. He also says that farmers and ranchers in the path of the bullet train won’t lose any access to or use of their land, because Texas Central will build connecting underpasses to let landowners move animals and farm equipment under the train. There aren’t any guarantees about where those tunnels will be installed along the rail line. Eckels says each landowner will have to negotiate the number and location of the underpasses with Texas Central representatives.
One of the areas fighting the change is Grimes County, which for decades has had some pretty rotten luck. It’s a tired, impoverished agricultural county that has never attracted much industry and has only modest natural resources. “People here are land-rich and dirt-poor — we’re one of the poorest counties in the state — and now the bullet train is coming through,” Grimes County Judge Ben Leman says. Leman sits in his cavernous office in the county courthouse, the only building in the county seat of Anderson that doesn’t look as if it should be on the set of a movie about the Great Depression.
While the railroads all used to pass through Grimes, the rise of the car and then the interstate highway system left the county behind, according to Leman. Grimes County has been waiting more than 30 years for its big chance, but Leman says all its hopes have been pinned on the completion of Texas 249. The 249 expansion started decades ago but stalled out in the Houston suburbs. In February, the Texas Department of Transportation announced plans to finally take 249 out to Grimes County, which would connect it more directly with Houston and the chance to attract employers. Leman found out that the proposed high-speed rail line would run right across the newly expanded highway. “It will be a walled-in train, and it won’t stop in Grimes or do us any good, and then it will lock everything in place on our portion of 249. Bridges over these rail lines are expensive, and so are tunnels under it. We can’t count on those being built,” Leman says.
Leman started organizing rural opposition. The county commissioners in every rural county on the proposed line have passed measures voting against the bullet train. Rural counties don’t have the political power they once had compared to the cities, so the only chance they have of being heard is by uniting, Leman says. He met Workman at a Texas Central meeting in Jewett and got him to join the group he was setting up, Texans Against High-Speed Rail. They’ve become the most vocal detractors of the proposal.
Workman lives on 100 acres of land just outside Jewett, and he travels to the cities most of the week for his job as a construction consultant. He and his family moved to Jewett from Austin four years ago because he and his wife, Christen, wanted to raise their children in the country. When Workman found out about the bullet-train line — one of the proposed routes would take the train along the edge of his back pasture — he went to the mayor of Jewett and proposed setting up a new subregional planning commission to oppose the high-speed rail line, just like the subregional committees that had previously been established to fight the Trans-Texas Corridor. “I moved out here to get away from the trains and the silliness of the city, and then the train came to me. That was when I knew this was a problem I was going to have to solve.”
Eckels insists Texas Central will do everything to make sure people’s land is disturbed as little as possible, but many people say they can’t risk trusting those reassurances when so much about the project has yet to be determined. Besides, many are convinced high-speed rail will never work in Texas. “Seeing the train run will dispel a lot of these fears that people have today. It’s fear of the unknown and, until you have a chance to see the train in real life, it will be a challenge to dispel those fears,” Eckels says.
At one meeting, Workman approached Eckels and rattled off his concerns.
“There’s a high probability of failure,” he told the former judge.
Eckels listened and nodded, Workman recalls.
“But what if it works,” Eckels said.
“None of us want to take the risk for this just in case it works,” Workman answered.
At the same time, the Texas Central project was quietly beginning to gather information on building the Dallas-to-Houston line. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has spent a significant amount of time trying to persuade foreigners to buy the Shinkansen, even offering Japanese bank loans to help countries to afford it, without much success. Japanese bullet-train technology allows the country to produce a train with an impeccable safety record that is always on time, but the company that makes the trains wants to sell each one as a complete closed-system set that includes the rails, the trains and the software needed to run the trains. The package deal makes the Shinkansen more expensive, but Eckels maintains the extra cost is worth it to ensure safety and reliability.
When Eckels was a Harris County judge, he led the creation of the Texas High-Speed Rail and Transportation Corp., a consortium of county and city officials who began pushing construction of the “Texas T-Bone,” a high-speed rail line from Dallas-Fort Worth to Austin and San Antonio, with a Houston-bound branch line splitting off in Temple. In 2010, as the Lawless-JR Central team was narrowing its focus to Dallas, it partnered with Eckels and formed Texas Central Railway. Eckels became its chairman and public face.
Things moved rapidly from there, and the company has an ambitious schedule: Construction will start by 2017, with passenger service launched by 2021. Texas Central signed a memorandum of understanding with the Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration and began the lengthy and expensive process of putting together an environmental impact statement, required by federal law before any infrastructure process can begin. Company officials say the EIS will be finished in late 2016 or early 2017.
Texas Central officials estimate they’ll have 12,000 passengers a day paying fares that will be competitive with airfare. The Dallas-to-Houston rail will have to be maintenanced frequently to keep the line clear, but it won’t have the long lines and invasive process of TSA airport security, Eckels says. Right now, people riding trains on Amtrak arrive at a railroad station and board the train, a simple process, and it’s expected high-speed rail would be run the same way.
Financing will be complex. Tim Keith, a North Texas native with a quarter century’s experience in finance, was named Texas Central’s CEO in July. Keith says about a third of the project, around $4 billion, will be funded by institutional investors — pension funds, insurance companies and the like looking for projects likely to yield reliable dividends for years. “There’s a very large appetite by institutional investors for U.S. infrastructure investment,” Keith says.
The rest of the money will come from loans. Keith expects the Japan Bank for International Cooperation to front several billion dollars. In a subtle shift away from Texas Central’s long-standing pledge that the project won’t be backed by public funds, Keith said the company plans on pursuing loans through a couple of federal sources, the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act and the Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing program. Texas Central officials may also look into securing approval to sell private-activity bonds, a form of tax-exempt debt often used for public-private infrastructure projects. (Eckels, meanwhile, says that the company never pledged not to pursue loans and bonds that are available to any company.)
Various high-speed-rail experts have speculated that Texas Central will rely on real estate development around its stations for revenue. Art Guzzetti, vice president for policy at the American Public Transportation Association, says that JR Central gets more than a third of its revenue from station-related development, including the 774-room Marriott in Nagoya, Japan.
Baruch Feigenbaum, a Reason Foundation analyst who supports Texas Central despite his skepticism concerning most U.S. high-speed rail projects, expects the company to charge between $50 and $60 per ticket. However, Feigenbaum’s calculations are based on the assumption that the company will own and develop the land around its stations. Otherwise, fares will have to be set significantly higher. Such speculation intensified when Jack Matthews, a powerhouse Dallas developer, was appointed to Texas Central’s board. Matthews has holdings in the Cedars neighborhood south of downtown Dallas, where Texas Central plans to build its Dallas station.
But Texas Central officials insist that their business model relies almost entirely on fares, not on making money off things like parking and concessions. The company expects to pull in some profit from station-related development, but that’s not what it’s focused on when selling the concept to potential investors.
Meanwhile, state legislators were prepared to try to cut the legs out from under the project during the last legislative session. By the time the 84th Texas Legislature opened in January, anti-bullet-train people had already contacted a number of rural legislators about opposing the train in the legislature. During the session, state Sen. Kolkhorst, much as she did with the Trans-Texas Corridor, showed up ready to fight. (Houston Press requests for interview or comment from Kolkhorst were never answered.) The Brenham state senator filed a bill, SB 1601, that would prevent any high-speed rail project from using eminent domain to procure land for the rail. It was one of about a half-dozen proposals aimed at derailing the project. None of the bills made it through the legislature before the end of the session.
The bullet-train supporters weren’t as zealous. While Kolkhorst and company made stabs at killing Texas Central’s ability to use eminent domain, legislators in favor of high-speed rail quietly worked to keep that from happening. Dallas officials supported the efforts, but Houston officials stayed out of the legislative fight. Some Houston officials even sent letters opposing the bullet train to the Federal Rail Administration.
The cities will need to connect the high-speed rail line with mass transit to make it really workable. Eckels says the highway system already provides enough transportation to get people from bullet-train stations to their destinations, but Maureen Crocker, executive director of the Gulf Coast Rail District, says it’s always a question of getting passengers to “the final mile.” Once the high-speed line is built, Houston and Dallas officials will have to make sure people can easily get around the cities. If local officials expand city transportation and light rail and add commuter trains, people will be able to move around easily using a new hodgepodge system of public and private transportation.
Bullet-train opponents keep hearing how cities might respond to the high-speed rail with their own public transit projects, which would fit into a larger framework of public transportation that would make carless travel across Texas possible.
Texas Central, by contrast, has pointedly refused all but the barest possible government involvement, its recent embrace of federal infrastructure loans notwithstanding. It is coordinating with TxDOT and the Federal Railroad Administration, as any rail project must, but the company has refused other help, including a $15 million federal grant earmarked for studying high-speed rail between Dallas and Houston, and remained firmly in the driver’s seat, setting its own agenda and timeline.
This has insulated Texas Central both from critics who denounce any public subsidy of high-speed rail and from pressure by public officials who might otherwise stretch the line in politically expedient but financially dubious directions. When several powerful North Texas officials publicly called for an extension of the line from its planned terminus in Dallas to Fort Worth, Texas Central dismissed the notion as unprofitable and forged ahead, leaving TxDOT to initiate and fund a study of a Dallas-Fort Worth link.
The company has also been coy about its foreign backing and has taken pains to promote the line as a homegrown project. The company’s website, set amid a backdrop of shimmering Texas prairie, proclaims the Dallas-to-Houston project as “America’s Bullet Train,” which mirrors officials’ public statements. In a July announcement that it had met an initial fundraising goal of $75 million, “all from Texas-based investors,” Texas Central laid its Texas connections on thick. Not counting references to the company name, the announcement mentioned “Texas” or “Texan” 42 times.
Southwest killed the last bid to create a bullet-train line, but this time around, the airline has been quiet. “Really, where we are now, we are on the sidelines,” said Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz. “We just haven’t seen enough to really know all the details that would lead us to have a position either way.”
Southwest’s silence can likely be explained in large part by a fundamental shift in where the airline’s revenues come from, says Michael Derchin, an airline industry analyst with CRT Capital Group. In 1991, Southwest was still heavily dependent on its original Texas Triangle routes. Since then, geographic expansion and the expiration of Wright Amendment restrictions on flights out of Dallas’s Love Field, among other factors, have made Southwest a bona fide national carrier. A bullet train “could certainly be a threat, but it wouldn’t be a huge, big deal like it would have been 25 years ago when that was their bread-and-butter,” Derchin says.
Once the line is built, there will be between 700 and 1,500 permanent jobs involved in running, servicing and performing maintenance on the trains, according to Eckels. Texas Central will also spend a lot of money on advertising and getting people interested. He noted that, traditionally, other rail lines and stations tend to spring up alongside established high-speed lines, which could bring more stations and commuter rail to the towns in between Dallas and Houston.
Texas squandered its first chance to secure the land for a high-speed rail line when the state passed on buying right of way from the passenger rail lines in the 1960s, Leilich says. Now it’s going to be more difficult, but Leilich is confident that Texas Central will get it done and that people will be zipping back and forth over the verdant Central Texas countryside in only a few years. “Hindsight is better than foresight by a damned sight, but now we have another shot,” he says.
Still, he admits that it’s impossible to construct this line in such a way that everyone wins. “There’s no doubt that if you build this, it’s going to hurt somebody. Somebody is going to lose something and get nothing out of it, but the number of people that would be adversely affected is so much smaller than the people who will benefit from high-speed rail.”
Beddingfield is trying to resign herself to the train. Cradling a tiny black and brown mutt dog named Tuffy, she stood on her front porch in exactly the same spot where more than 60 years ago she and her father had planned out her life as a rancher, pondering the future with a high-speed rail line zooming by in a rush of air every few minutes. She doesn’t have the heart for another fight. “They have the money and the power for this and if they want to build it, they will. If that line gets built, I don’t see how it will miss cutting through here. My Daddy would have fought them, but I can’t do it again,” she said quietly. She sighed and shrugged her shoulders. “But I try not to go borrowing trouble. A lot can happen. Maybe it won’t get built.”