Since the 1990s, there have been several attempts to build a publicly funded or financed high-speed rail line linking Dallas and Houston. Ultimately, none of these efforts succeeded. Most recently, in 2013, Texas Central Partners proposed building a privately financed high-speed rail line between the two largest metro areas in Texas. When the project was announced, many passenger rail researchers thought it was an intriguing concept. Privately funded or financed infrastructure could be 20% cheaper than publicly funded infrastructure. In addition, Texas Central’s point-to-point system presented an alternative to California’s three-sides-of-a-square line linking Los Angeles with San Francisco via many much smaller cities.
However, Texas Central’s vision for its project did not match the realities on the ground. Cost estimates quickly swelled from $10 billion to more than $30 billion by April 2020. This author’s quantitative analysis of potential ridership projected 1.4 million passengers per year, a far cry from the 5.9 million passengers per year Texas Central claimed.
A train with such a low ridership could not come close to generating the revenue or profits that Texas Central promised. Given the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual subsidies that would be required to operate Texas Central’s project, private investors showed little to no interest.
Texas Central’s proposal also faced significant opposition. Farmers, ranchers, and other landowners objected to having their land bisected by a train traveling at 200 miles per hour over 30 times each day. Elected officials between Dallas and Houston mobilized to voice their constituents’ opposition to the project. The Texas Legislature passed a law prohibiting the state from spending any funds on the project.
The Environmental Protection Agency refused to sign off on Texas Central’s preferred station in downtown Houston, forcing the company to move its southern terminus to the western suburbs. Finally, freight rail lines objected to Texas Central’s proposed signaling system because it would interfere with existing communications technology.
Facing delay after delay and setback after setback, Texas Central appears to have finally accepted reality. By late June 2022, Texas Central’s chief executive officer and all of its board members had resigned.
Texas Central still faces legal challenges that must be addressed. Due to the company’s ongoing financial difficulties, it remained delinquent on its 2021 property taxes into 2022 and has yet to pay its homeowner association dues in several impacted counties. Despite these facts, it remains unclear whether Texas Central has abandoned the project permanently or merely placed it in hibernation.
Assuming Texas Central attempts to resuscitate the project, this brief examines four barriers to doing so: (1) the continually escalating costs of building and operating high-speed rail, (2) the limited and declining pool of potential ridership, (3) Texas Central’s status as a zombie company, and (4) the lack of federal or state support for Texas Central’s project.