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200 Mph Train: Fast Track or Texas-Size Folly?

February 18, 1991

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) _ Two international groups are vying to link Texas’s largest cities with 200 mph trains, and the project’s engineers say it could put the state on a fast track to the 21st century.

But skeptics, including the head of an airline that already connects 10 Lone Star cities, say the plan should be derailed if it’s going to require public money.

The Texas High Speed Rail Authority plans hearings next month and by May could award a state franchise to build and operate the $6 billion train.

The panel’s chairman, Charles J. Wyly Jr., says Texas could lead the nation if the project is undertaken.

″It is the jet age and space age technology embraced in these new rail systems that holds so much promise,″ said Wyly. ″Other states are working on this, but we in Texas have the opportunity to be first.″

The two bidders, which each paid a $500,000 fee to compete, propose using European technology on a triangular route connecting Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio. The Dallas-Houston leg would be first, running by 1998.

The proposals say that 200 mph, steel-wheeled, electric trains could carry passengers from downtown Dallas to downtown Houston in 90 minutes. Airline flights from Dallas to Houston take 50 to 55 minutes, but train boosters say that counting the time it takes to travel to and from airports, total downtown-to-downtown travel time would be reduced.

Seeking the franchise are: Texas FasTrac Inc., a consortium based on German train technology; and Texas TGV, which would use French trains. San Antonio businessman Glenn Biggs is president of FasTrac, while former Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes helped organize TGV.

″I’m deeply impressed with them and the proposals I’ve seen,″ said Federal Railroad Administrator Gil Carmichael. ″Texas is a leader in this nation in planning for the development of high-speed rail.″

Under current Texas law, no state money can be used to build the rail system. Spokesmen for both bidding groups say their applications meet that criterion, but they also have indicated they may seek changes in state or federal laws concerning issuance of tax-exempt bonds.

″We don’t want any money out of the Texas Legislature,″ said Barnes.

That’s good, say legislative leaders, especially with state government facing a $4.6 billion deficit this year.

Boosters argue that the trains offer many advantages in addition to reduced travel time.

They say trains could cut highway congestion, reduce air pollution, lessen dependence on imported oil, be immune to bad weather that grounds airplanes, unclog airports and provide jobs.

Their arguments haven’t convinced everyone.

Southwest Airlines chairman Herb Kelleher said the two groups are composed of companies involved in construction and train manufacturing, not in operating railroads.

High-speed rail is ″a studied effort ... to sell German and French trains to Texas taxpayers,″ Kelleher said. ″It’s like Boeing came to Texas and said, ‘Guys, we’ve got this great idea - you spend $6 billion building airports and we’ll sell more planes.’ ″

Kelleher insists the train isn’t economically viable as a private project and won’t be able to sell tickets for less than his airline can.

Kelleher and Greyhound Bus Lines Inc. general counsel George Hanthorn said they don’t object to a high-speed train, if the project remains strictly a private enterprise.

But Hanthorn noted that Amtrak’s Metroliner earns enough to cover only 75 percent of its operating costs, even though it connects the heavily populated Washington, New York City and Boston areas.

″It strains credibility to think that a train from Dallas-Fort Worth to San Antonio can generate more money than the Metroliner,″ he said.

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