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On everyone's mind at the Southwestern Rail Conference? The proposed Texas bullet train

A wide image of two bullet trains passing each other on tracks
A Shinkansen bullet train like the one used in Japan could one day connect North Texas to Houston.

High speed rail in Texas is big talk in a state ruled by cars.

Still, transportation officials are moving forward with plans to build a bullet train connecting Fort Worth, Dallas and Houston.

The project was a major focus at this week's Southwestern Rail Conference in Hurst. KERA's Pablo Arauz Peña was there and spoke with All Things Considered host Justin Martin about what he learned.

Pablo, for those who don't know, what is the Southwestern Rail Conference?

So, the Southwestern Rail Conference is a meeting of rail advocates from across the country, from various sectors of the industry. It's where government agencies and major companies in the industry come together to talk about what the future could look like for railway projects, especially here in Texas. So this is the conference’s 20th year, and it's happening just a few months after Amtrak announced it's partnering with a Dallas based firm, Texas Central, to study the potential for a bullet train from Houston to North Texas. It'd be the first bullet train in the U.S.

What are some of the conversations you've been hearing about the project?

So a lot of people want to see high speed rail in Texas, but the questions now are when and how. The answer to the first question is complicated. Here's David Peter Alan, editor for Railway Age.

I don't think the political will exists in this country to pay for it.”

Still, there has been some progress on the Dallas to Houston bullet train in recent months. Since Amtrak took up the project last August, the Dallas High-Speed rail station has already been federally approved, but the Fort Worth to Dallas leg of the project is going through an environmental review that will finish up in less than a year. From there, Amtrak hopes to make headway on the eminent domain issues, but there has been a lot of opposition from landowners. That's what makes the “how” question a little bit harder to answer.

The bottom line is Texas is growing, and local, state and federal officials involved in planning for infrastructure know that we can only build so many highways and lanes. The idea of making high speed rail or any type of passenger rail more of an option for residents is becoming more tenable.

I suppose the big question is what are elected officials saying about high speed rail?

Yeah, so yesterday, Travis County Judge Andy Brown from the Austin area said he's made passenger rail one of his top priorities. He's proposing a program like Texas has with highways, where the feds would match state money to $0.80 on the dollar for rail.

A passenger rail system not only broadens our transportation choices, but it also enhances the infrastructure crucial for improving the quality of life for people in Austin and Travis County in Texas. And that's really what matters here.”

Now, that program doesn't exist. But I spoke to a former state senator, Richard Anderson, who represented East Texas. He's now advocating for the I-20 corridor, a passenger rail that would connect Dallas to Atlanta. Anderson says he thinks the issue of funding passenger rail should go to voters like the legislature did with broadband recently. And if it's on the ballot and voters want it, then maybe there's a chance that we could see more political support for passenger rail projects like the bullet train to Houston.

So, it sounds like funding is a pretty big barrier to passenger rail in Texas. What are some other takeaways you have from this year's conference so far?

There are plenty of obstacles on the track, so to speak. For high speed rail, I've been hearing phrases like possible but not probable and not in our lifetime thrown around when it comes to the bullet train project. So there's still a lot of skepticism. A lot of folks are at this conference to hear from Andy Byford, the so-called train daddy, who's known for his accomplishments in improving the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York City. Now he's an executive at Amtrak. And many here are saying that if anyone can bring high speed rail to the US, it's him.

Got a tip? Email Pablo Arauz Peña at

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Pablo Arauz Peña is the Growth and Infrastructure Reporter for KERA News.