July 16, 2020 - TRA Newswire - Updated 7/17/20 with TCR comment -
In a 15 page decision Thursday, the Surface Transportation Board affirmed that Texas Central Railway (TCR) is officially part of the interstate rail network. In its finding the SurfBoard indicated that "due to substantially changed circumstances, the Board now finds that the proposed rail line would be constructed and operated as part of the interstate rail network and therefore subject to Board jurisdiction." Texas Central had argued that its through-ticketing and transfer arrangements with Amtrak would establish Board jurisdiction.
Thursday's decision is a blow to opponents of the bullet train project between Dallas and Houston, that included some rural state and Congressional lawmakers that were intent on killing the passenger rail line. "A group of rural Texas legislators had tried to block the private entity in the last three state legislative sessions with dozens of bills that would have effectively derailed the project", according to Texas Rail Advocates President Peter LeCody. "The only bills that made it successfully through the Texas legislature dealt with safety and security issues. This is a clear win for Texas Central and we look forward to the day when they can start construction on this mega-project to unite North Texas to the Gulf region."
The SurfBoard also noted in their decision that issues pertaining to eminent domain authority are matters of Texas law. This was a hot button issue with detractors claiming that Texas Central was not a railroad and could not survey private property. This past May the 13th Court of Appeals of Texas ruled in favor of Texas Central, holding that it was both a railroad company and interurban electric railway. That ruling came after a four year court battle waged by landowners and rural legislators. Leon County landowners and elected officials had argued that since the project didn't own passenger cars or lay any track that it was not an official railroad and didn't have the legal right to survey property.
In a written statement TCR stated "Texas Central is very pleased that the Surface Transportation Board (STB) has rendered their unanimous decision to advance the high-speed rail project between Dallas and Houston. This decision is an important milestone for Texas Central, Texas and the United States. We look forward to working with the STB, DOT and FRA to move this historic project forward."
Texas Central had applied to the STB in 2016, asking for the board to take jurisdiction over its intrastate high-speed rail project that would whisk passengers between the two mega-regions at speeds up to 200 miles per hour in a 90 minute trip.
The Board, in a July 2016 decision, determined that the project’s connections to Amtrak proposed at the time were “too speculative and undefined.” However, the Board also noted that Texas Central could seek Board authority should it develop more concrete plans that would make the Texas Central line part of the interstate rail network.
In the decision today, the STB noted "the through ticketing arrangement and planned bus transfer service would facilitate a practical and continuous movement of passengers in interstate commerce by allowing passengers to purchase a single ticket for both the Texas Central and Amtrak portions of their trip and by providing a connection between interstate Amtrak lines and the Texas Central Line via a transfer service between stations." Amtrak had stated that it has entered into agreements with Texas Central, which “provide for Amtrak to sell through tickets, via its reservation system and sales channels, to passengers traveling between points on Amtrak’s national route network and points on Texas Central’s Dallas-Houston high speed train route. Amtrak had stated that the national network and TCR would benefit from the through ticketing arrangement, which would provide a new convenient, high-speed rail connection for passengers travelling on all three of the Amtrak routes that serve Texas.
The ridership projections were based on demand modeling tools regularly used by Amtrak that drew on survey responses, historical ridership data, and inputs that typify intercity transportation modeling, such as socioeconomic conditions, fares, travel times, and trip frequencies.
In the brief the STB noted that on August 21, 2019, Texas Central filed supplemental information showing that passenger transfers between Texas Central and Amtrak's Texas Eagle, Sunset Limited and Heartland Flyer in the first full year of service would be somewhere between 5,100 and 5,700 passengers. By year 10 of operations, approximately 18,300-20,500 passengers would transfer between the Texas Central and Amtrak systems annually.
The decree from the STB read that "given the totality of circumstances presented here, including a clearly defined through ticketing arrangement with Amtrak and a transfer service that would facilitate a practical and continuous movement of passengers in interstate commerce, and that the Line would be operated as part of the general system of rail transportation, the Board finds that Texas Central’s proposed Line would be constructed as part of the interstate rail network and, as a result, subject to the Board’s jurisdiction under 49 U.S.C. § 10501."