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STB Says Texas Central Is Part Of The Nation's Rail Network

July 17, 2020

In another blow for opponents of Texas Central’s planned Dallas-Houston high-speed link forward, the U.S. Surface Transportation Board just ruled – unanimously – that the train’s Amtrak through-ticketing agreement makes Texas Central legitimately part of the nation’s interstate passenger rail network, giving STB jurisdiction over the project.

“This decision is an important milestone for Texas Central, Texas and the United States,” Texas Central said in a prepared statement. “We look forward to working with the STB, [Dept. of Transportation] and [Federal Railroad Administration] to move this historic project forward."

Rail Passengers Association President and CEO Jim Mathews hailed the decision as a truly important inflection point.

"The STB's reasoning in its decision validates our assessment that the through-ticketing agreement meaningfully and powerfully affects the entire U.S. interstate rail network, establishing a new and useful connection that will stimulate new travel," Mathews said. "This is because the direct link between Houston and Dallas will bypass a major flaw in Amtrak’s existing long-distance network as it is currently configured—many connections must today flow through Chicago, a major impediment to travelers in the South and West."

Texas Central asked for STB jurisdiction in 2016 but STB declined, saying that the potential for passengers to flow between Amtrak and Texas Central was “speculative.”

Foes of high-speed rail in Texas spent a lot of time and money to argue that the nation’s top federal rail regulator had no jurisdiction over the project. 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.”

In 2018, 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.

Supporters pointed to the ridership projections Amtrak and Texas Central developed for the connecting passengers, and these clearly animated the STB’s decision this week. In our own filings with STB, Rail Passengers took these a step further, pointing out that the agreements meant that 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 permits 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. 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.

The analysis we shared to the STB docket is here at this link.

In this week’s decision, STB did not agree with opponents’ assertions that these connections were speculative, and flatly rejected the opponents’ scare-mongering suggestions that STB jurisdiction somehow opened the door to federal exercise of eminent domain.

The Board did order, however, that Texas Central make a formal application for service so that STB can evaluate the financial fitness of the project. While Texas Central had opposed that idea, Rail Passengers believes that the overall financials remain sound despite the coronavirus crisis and its temporary effect on access to capital markets, and a full record could establish once and for all a solid basis for the project to move forward. It would also help set up precedents and guidance that will make a clearer pathway for any other new systems that might emerge in the coming years. Rail Passengers hopes the STB will move quickly to consider Texas Central’s full application so this exciting project can move forward and the traveling public can realize the benefits of high-performance rail without delay.