Airplanes vs. Bullet Trains: The Race Is On in Texas

Fifty years ago, Southwest Airlines revolutionized regional air travel. Now another Texas-based business is launching a counterrevolution on the ground—and the carbon savings could be huge.

Texas Central Railway plans on running trains similar to the Tokaido Shinkansen Series N700 (shown here) between Dallas and Houston. Wally Gobetz/Flickr

Two guys walk into a bar…and go on to create Southwest Airlines. According to this durable snippet of too-good-to-fact-check corporate lore, the company’s founders drew a triangle on the back of a square cocktail napkin, with points representing San Antonio (where they were wetting their whistles on that particular day half a century ago), Dallas, and Houston. Their winning and ultimately profitable idea: Offer customers fast, no-frills, low-fare flights between a handful of Texas boomtowns with tightly interconnected business cultures but spaced just far enough apart to make driving between them a drag.

For decades it made sense for travelers to opt for an hour-long Southwest flight between Dallas and Houston rather than a four-hour drive (a trip that’s predicted to take more than six hours by the year 2035). But these days, the advantages of flying aren’t as clear-cut. First, the logistics involved with modern-day air travel—getting to and from the airport, going through TSA lines, dealing with delays, waiting at baggage carousels, etc.—have practically neutralized the original time savings; add it all up and that hour-long flight actually ends up taking you at least three hours, usually more. Second, with gasoline as cheap as it is today, you can’t really make the cost-savings argument for flying over driving anymore, either.

Now, nearly 50 years after its founding, Southwest may soon face unexpected competition for its always-booked Dallas-to-Houston service. And in a telling bit of irony, this new rival has come in the form of a railway company, of all things.

After several years spent getting its legal, financial, and procedural ducks in a row, the company known as Texas Central is moving ever closer to realizing its goal of linking two of Texas’s biggest cities via high-speed bullet train. Though a few right-of-way issues still need to be cleared up, Texas Central seems on track (I know, I know; I’m sorry) to break ground on its 240-mile-long rail system in early 2017, with service scheduled to begin within the next five years. Then the nearly 50,000 Texans whom the company has identified as Dallas-to-Houston “supercommuters”—i.e., those who drive or fly between the two cities more than once a week—will have a highly attractive third option: climbing aboard sleek, swift, tricked-out trains that depart every half-hour and reach their center-city destinations in under 90 minutes.

If Texas Central is successful, this politically red, oil-loving state could become the first in the nation to implement the kind of high-speed rail that has already slashed commuter travel times in Europe, China, and Japan—while reducing carbon emissions in the bargain. One Harvard University economist has estimated that for every trip between Dallas and Houston taken on a bullet train rather than in a car, 113 pounds of carbon dioxide would be kept out of the atmosphere. And the Japanese bullet trains on which Texas Central is basing its own fleet have been found to emit, per passenger seat, one-twelfth the per-passenger CO2 of a Boeing B777-200 jet.

I’ve been following the Texas Central story for several years, and not just because I was born and raised in Dallas. As someone who believes strongly that sustainability issues transcend everyday politics, my fascination has more to do with the curious overlapping of constituencies at work here—and what it might augur for the future of high-speed rail projects across the country.

For one thing, unlike bullet-train projects currently underway in other U.S. locations, Texas Central’s plans aren’t the fruit of some billion-dollar bond measure or contentious voter referendum. Instead, the venture is being privately funded by a consortium of profit-seeking investors and is being vigorously backed by leaders drawn from the state’s conservative business and civic cultures. These folks have taken a long, careful look at the region’s growth forecasts and demographics and have concluded that this mode of transportation, which just so happens to promise massive carbon savings, is also a too-good-to-pass-up business opportunity.

Which leads directly to the second aspect of this plan that I find so significant: Investors are excited about the prospects for high-speed rail in Texas precisely because Texans themselves are excited about it. According to one University of Texas, Arlington study, a T-shaped route connecting the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, Houston, and San Antonio—the original “triangle” imagined by Southwest Airlines’ visionaries, you’ll recall—would draw as many as 22,000 passengers daily. Even if you’re skeptical of those numbers and cut them in half with regard to the proposed Dallas-to-Houston route, you’re still looking at a reduction of more than a million pounds of atmospheric CO2 a day.      

People want to move quickly, safely, smoothly, and efficiently between the major cities in their states and regions. Fifty years ago, a pair of Texans had the bright idea to put them on airplanes, which worked really well for a good, long while. But now a new generation of Texans has figured out that there’s an even better way. One can only hope that the rest of the country is paying attention.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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