The carrier has fought against a bullet train in the state before.
As the privately funded Texas high-speed rail plan to connect Houston and Dallas attracts its share of opponents, one of the looming questions is whether or not Southwest Airlines will join the fray. It wouldn't be the first time.
As Aman Batheja of the Texas Tribune recounted last year, Texas made a failed go at high-speed rail back in 1989. Officials formed a state rail authority and developed plans with the French high-speed rail provider TGV. Fearful that such a train service would put a dent in its travel base, Southwest Airlines lobbied hard against the Texas TGV plan, even making overtures of leaving the state. A record Batheja tracked down from that era reveals the nature of Southwest's rancor:
“Rail has a romantic appeal; but, this case cannot be decided on the basis of nostalgia, or even a desire to emulate the rail service of France and Germany,” Southwest Airlines said in a brief filed with the authority in 1991. “The American reality is that high-speed rail will be viable in Texas only by destroying the convenient and inexpensive transportation service the airlines now provide, and only by absorbing huge public subsidies.”
Fast-forward to today, and Southwest has remained on the sidelines as the Texas Central Railway plans progress toward environmental review, saying on record that "insufficient information" about the high-speed plan exists to make a decision for or against it. But high-speed rail opponents themselves seem to believe they'll have Southwest in their corner. And a video of a public meeting held by the Texans Against High-Speed Rail group, posted online in March, goes so far as to imply they already do.
At the 52-minute mark of the video, in response to a question about Southwest's potential role in the HSR opposition, a representative of Texans Against High-Speed Rail says the two parties are "coordinating" and offers the same rationale for Southwest to join the opposition—taxpayer subsidy for HSR—that the airline itself cited in 1991. Here's the full answer:
"The question was: 'Are we coordinating with Southwest Airlines?' The answer is yes, we are. Our lobbyist is Southwest Airlines' lobbyist. We picked them for that very reason. And they are currently sitting on the sidelines waiting for there to be the first inkling of taxpayer subsidy. And as soon as there's taxpayer subsidy, the fight becomes personal, if you will."
The lobbyist referenced here is presumably the Graydon Group, which initially agreed to represent Texans Against High-Speed Rail but later dropped the opposition group citing a conflict with another client, Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which favors the bullet train. Graydon also works with Southwest.
Chris Mainz, a spokesman for Southwest, tells CityLab via email the airline has "absolutely no involvement" with the Texans Against High-Speed Rail group, adding "any claim that we have engaged on this issue is not just misleading, it is downright false." As for when Southwest might declare an official position on the Texas Central plan, Mainz couldn't say when there would be "sufficient" information available to do so.
"We don't have a concrete threshold," he writes, "but we'll know it when we see it, and we haven't seen it to date."