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Getting It Right

September 25, 2019

Mathews Again Urges STB To Open The Doors For Texas Central

by Jim Mathews / President and CEO

Foes of high-speed rail in Texas have spent a lot of time and money to argue that the nation’s top federal rail regulator has no jurisdiction over the proposed Texas Central Railway’s high-speed rail project. In 2016 it looked as if they might have won, when the Surface Transportation Board concluded that because the project would only link Dallas to Houston, interstate commerce wasn’t implicated.

But in its July 2016 ruling, the Board kept the door open a crack: “[s]hould Texas Central develop concrete plans that would make the [Texas Central] Line part of the interstate rail network, such as an actual through ticketing arrangement with Amtrak…Texas Central could seek Board authority at that time.”

Last year, Amtrak and Texas Central signed that agreement. Rail Passengers argued then to the Board that the reality of that agreement substantially alters the factual basis for any determination and we offered our support for a Texas Central petition to re-open the case.

A lot has changed since then. Revisiting this decision is important for getting it right.

The STB has two new members – former Senate Commerce staffer Patrick Fuchs as Vice Chair and attorney Martin Obermann – and has moved aggressively to re-assert itself in the realm of rail policy. And earlier this summer, the STB issued a decision on Texas Central’s petition to reopen the proceeding asking for more information…a LOT more. It was a daunting list, looking for additional precedent and more data, but Texas Central late last month was able to answer all of those requests and more.

Today, Rail Passengers made a filing with STB to concur with Texas Central’s arguments in its reply, adding our voice to many others urging the STB to assume jurisdiction and sweep away some of the local procedural roadblocks that could hamstring progress on this important new service.

The anti-rail crowd in Texas fixated on the fact that there’s no cross-platform connection possible between Texas Central trains and Amtrak service. But there are plenty of travelers who walk more than a few feet to make connections, and that walk doesn’t make their journey any less an example of “interstate commerce.”

What I said in our filing today is this: “The most important consideration in this matter remains the degree to which the through-ticketing agreement – and the relatively close proximity of the services – stimulates new travel and through-travel on the rest of the nation’s interstate passenger rail system. Amtrak’s own estimates are that some 20,000 connecting passengers are likely to use the Texas Central services to travel to other parts of the National Network by the tenth year of service. Thus, Rail Passengers asserts that last year’s through-ticketing agreement with Amtrak not only responds to the Board’s direction in its 2016 jurisdiction decision, but substantially alters the factual basis for any determination.”

We did an analysis of the through-ticketing agreement, and we found that it meaningfully and powerfully affects the entire U.S. interstate rail network. Houston and Dallas passengers would be linked, via a single fare purchase, to some 13,958 Amtrak route miles making any one of 12,256 possible origin-destination pair journeys possible.

“Building single-ticket connections between the proposed Houston-Dallas route and the rest of the Amtrak National Network will permit northbound travelers in Houston to buy a single fare to ride TCR’s train and connect with Amtrak’s Texas Eagle, or with the Heartland Flyer via the Eagle. The Houston TCR passenger would thus enjoy single-fare access to any one of 4,753 different journeys on the combined Amtrak-TCR network—access to 5,662 route miles of Amtrak service,” I said in our filing today. “Southbound travelers can reach any one of the Sunset Limited’s 22 destinations or even connect to Amtrak’s City of New Orleans or Crescent services, opening up 7,503 potential journeys along 8,296 Amtrak route miles.”

But I also went a step further, reminding the Board of the larger implications of whatever steps it takes.

“The Board’s jurisdiction decision in this matter could help set the preconditions for private capital to invest in development of high-speed rail in the U.S.; likewise, the decision could also retard that development for decades to come,” I wrote. “Thus, the traveling, taxpaying public has a compelling interest in ensuring that the Board gets the very best opportunity to examine not only the voluminous filings in this matter, but to hear from stakeholders on the very real implications of this decision for transportation policy in the U.S.”

You can read our latest submission to the Surface Transportation Board here.

This is an important moment for rail travel in the U.S., and we hope all our members – not just those in Texas – recognize the national implications for this new service. They need all of us around the country to support their work!