AUSTIN, TEXAS — IF they build it, will anyone ride?
Critics say that key question must be answered before central Texas farmland is sliced up to make way for a $6.8 billion "bullet train." In January state regulators awarded a 50-year franchise to build and operate such a train to the Texas High-Speed Rail Corporation (THSRC), a consortium whose major shareholder is Morrison-Knudsen, the Idaho-based construction giant.
THSRC proposes to lay 590 miles of track linking San Antonio, Austin, Fort Worth, Dallas, and Houston. The Houston-Dallas route would be the first to commence service, by the end of 1998. The train would cover the 250-mile distance in 90 minutes at speeds up to 200 miles per hour. Conventional trains top out at 80 m.p.h.
Bombardier Corporation of Montreal would provide trains designed by the French company GEC Alsthom. That kind of train has operated safely in France for 12 years, carrying 600 million passengers without a fatal accident, says Gil Carmichael, the federal railroad administrator.
Mr. Carmichael, a rail enthusiast, says the Texas project is the furthest along of its type. It will use traditional steel wheels on a track with few curves and no road crossings. From top speed the train would take two miles to stop in an emergency.
Orlando, Fla., is building a 14-mile magnetic-levitation train with $97 million in federal funds from last fall's transportation bill. And by November, Swedish-built "tilt" trains, so-called because they maintain speed by leaning into curves in the track, will begin test runs on Amtrack's Northeast corridor. Those trains should travel at 150 m.p.h. between Washington and New York, Carmichael says, but only 125 m.p.h. between New York and Boston, where there are 200 curves in 200 miles of track.
Carmichael is happy to see the United States moving forward on high-speed rail: "It's been researched to death." As air travel grows, airports will be increasingly congested with jets unless the airlines begin flying larger models, Carmichael says.
Airlines will not be able to make money flying the enormous jets of the future on short hops of 500 miles or less between cities, he says. In his opinion, that should be left to high-speed rail.
Dallas-based Southwest Airlines disagrees. "That doesn't hold water. We've been doing it for 20 years and we're profitable," says spokesman Ed Stewart. Southwest, which opposed THSRC's franchise, charges from $34 to $79 for its Houston-Dallas run. THSRC would need to charge $70 for the same trip, chairman Glenn Biggs says. Mr. Biggs adds that for each dollar spent, high-speed rail can move twice as many people as automobiles, and five times as many as jets.
Mr. Stewart, however, contends that the rail system would need heavy subsidies and would have to capture a majority of the intrastate travel handled by airlines. "We have a problem with that," Stewart says. As a taxpaying entity, Southwest doesn't want to help subsidize a competitor that wants to put it out of business, he adds.
By law the rail project cannot use Texas tax revenues, and the consortium says it won't need them. Biggs says that the rail project will not work unless Texas hands over funds it receives from the federal government for highway projects, something state officials seem willing to do. In addition, the project must find a way to issue tax-exempt bonds to keep its borrowing costs low. Currently a federal cap prevents the state from issuing any more. Before bonds could be issued, the consortium must raise mon ey from investment banks.
"Frankly, the ridership issue is the answer," says Lena Guerrero, chairwoman of the state agency that granted the franchise. "If financial institutions don't find the ridership analysis either credible or sustainable ... this project will not occur."
State officials, in granting the franchise, took the position that the project could create jobs and increase the state's transportation options, while not risking any state tax dollars.
An outside firm will present a ridership estimate by this fall. Some 12 million people reside in the triangular area that the project would serve. Biggs thinks that the train could survive on 4 million passengers per year.
"The truth of the matter is, no one really knows" whether that figure is likely, Biggs says. But private investors have been confident enough to spend $10 million to advance the project.