With more than 300 daily departures, the Shinkansen bullet train covers the 300 miles between Tokyo and Osaka, Japan's two largest metro areas, in as little as 2 hours and 25 minutes. To an American tourist, the journey can feel futuristic. But the world’s first high-speed line, which now carries nearly 400,000 people a day, actually began running half a century ago.
It's a galling fact to consider upon returning home, where the fastest American train is Amtrak's comparatively pokey Acela Express, plodding 400 miles from Washington to Boston in about 7 hours. While bullet trains now race across Europe and Asia, American high-speed rail has a long history of delay and disappointment. President Obama's plan for a national network stalled when Republican governors refused to accept federal money. A $68 billion project is underway in California, but that line, which voters approved six years ago, isn't slated to connect Los Angeles with San Francisco until at least 2029.
Richard Lawless, who as a C.I.A. officer posted in Tokyo in the 1980s was a frequent Shinkansen passenger, has long found America's failure to embrace high-speed rail "mind-boggling." But today the former Bush administration official is in a position to change things, as chairman and CEO of Texas Central Railway, a private company that plans to link Dallas and Houston with a 200-mile-per-hour bullet train as soon as 2021. The venture just might be high-speed rail's best hope in the United States.
"The project has been progressing below the radar, very quietly, very deliberately, over the last four years plus," says Lawless. It's now undergoing an environmental impact study that will take between two and three years, but Texas Central, whose backers include Japan's JR Central railway, has already conducted its own extensive research. The company, originally called U.S.-Japan High-Speed Rail, looked at 97 possible routes nationwide before concluding that Texas was the ideal place for a high-speed line — and that healthy profits could be made in long-distance passenger rail, a travel mode that for the past 40 years has existed only with the help of massive government subsidies.
"Texas is special," says Lawless. He lists among its advantages a flat, rural landscape, staggering growth potential, and a "business-friendly approach." He adds that "as city pairs, Dallas and Houston are pretty unique in the United States." The cities are 240 miles apart, a distance Lawless describes as a "sweet spot" for high-speed rail, where it beats both air and highway travel.
The company is working under the assumption that both metro area populations will double by 2035, but their economies are already linked to an extent that that the railway's backers can count on a steady flow of traffic between them. Crucial to the line's success will be the 50,000 people who commute regularly between Dallas and Houston, currently a five-hour schlep in traffic or an hour-long flight on Southwest Airlines — which, when factoring in security lines and travel to and from the airport, takes longer than the 90-minute ride, downtown to downtown, promised by Texas Central.
Maureen Crocker, executive director of the Gulf Coast Rail District, a joint effort of the City of Houston and surrounding counties to expand rail service, says the line will serve a real need if it can get cars off the region's highways. She points to a recent Rice University survey that found congestion to be the number one concern of Houston residents.
"Yes, our economy is booming, but we are actually paying a price," says Crocker, who is also an aide to Houston Mayor Annise Parker. "There are major roadways here that are at gridlock. People are very aware of the problem and need for rail."
This is not the first time high-speed rail has been proposed in Texas. Twenty years ago, another private developer, Texas T.G.V., spent some $70 million toward an inter-city system, which was halted largely because of opposition from Southwest Airlines. There has been some speculation that Southwest could fight Texas Central as well, but so far the airline has kept mum, and it's possible that the train could even be a boon for air travel, if it helps take pressure off busy airports.
"There's really nothing not to be excited about," says Sam Merten, a spokesman for Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, who along with the mayors of Houston and Fort Worth has endorsed the project. "It seems like it's a win-win for everybody."
Much of the mayoral enthusiasm can be chalked up to the fact that the project will cost constituents nothing. Texas Central plans to fund construction — which early estimates put at about $10 billion — exclusively through private investment. It would consider federal financing, says Lawless, but it will not accept subsidies even if the line fails to turn a profit.
"We will not structure this company in any way that will come back and be a burden to the state of Texas," says Lawless. "That is the risk that we take as a privately-funded, privately-owned and operated company." That risk is outweighed by the advantages of staying private, he says. "It just gives you the flexibility to execute the project on schedule, probably with a lot more freedom of action than you would have if it were a government project."
While Japanese passenger rail is private (and profitable), the U.S. passenger rail industry declined significantly through the 20th century, and federally-funded Amtrak eventually took over all long-distance passenger service. But Dallas-Houston is not America's only planned private passenger route — All Aboard Florida, an express railway that would link Orlando and Miami, is scheduled to begin service by 2016. If these lines are successful, Lawless believes other private investors will begin to sense demand, as Americans who have become accustomed to the grind of traffic and the hassles of air travel get a taste of the ease and convenience rail can offer.
"People don't realize how dependable it is," he says. "In Japan, the average delay is less than a minute, and you can board five minutes before it leaves. … I think what will happen is, if we can demonstrate a successful high-speed rail system on this corridor, there will actually be agitation for it in other viable corridors."