A render of Central Texas’ 200 mph journey through the countryside (Image courtesy of Texas Central Railroad)
The Texas Central Railroadwho started working in 2014 on his project high speed railroad liaison between Houston and Dallas, won a landslide victory on June 24 at the Texas Supreme Courtwhich ruled that private enterprise enjoys the eminent domain power that the state grants to railroads under the Texas Transportation Code. This means that Texas Central, which in 2020 received environmental and safety clearance for its Federal Railway Administrationmay force reluctant landowners — some of whom are in rural East Texas — to sell their property for the project, which the railroad says will carry its first fare-paying passengers in 2026.
Depending on what type of civic geek you are, you may know that historically this is how America’s railroads, and later their pipelines, were built. However, there is now only one private intercity railroad in the United States – South Florida. Light line – which opened in 2018 on existing tracks. Amtrak’s Acela service, the nation’s only true high-speed rail, was also built in an existing corridor, so the new Texas Central project is the first of its kind in about 150 years. Even Texas’ failed attempt 30 years ago (1989-1995) to create a state high-speed rail authority assumed its right-of-way would be publicly owned, even if it franchised a private operator. The Obama administration’s high-speed rail initiative also led to a study of potential service along the I-35 corridor from Oklahoma City to Monterrey — but not from Houston to Dallas. Thus, an opening was left for Texas Central, which plans to use the same Japanese Shinkansen trains that connect Tokyo and Osaka and travel 240 miles in 90 minutes, with an intermediate stop to serve Bryan/College Station.
The extreme novelty of Texas Central seemed to work in favor of those big land and agricultural interests along the road who tried to derail the project in the Texas Legislature and block it in court. Hilarious, Texas Central identifies itself when needed as a “intercity electric rail company“, a phrase in state law referring to pre-World War II public transit, such as between Dallas and Denton or Houston and Galveston. (Most of these systems had disappeared by 1940.) Still, Texas Central must be electric, and it will go between two cities, and so SCOTX – upholding the earlier decision of the 13th Court of Appeals – held that it had unambiguously the eminent domain powers granted to long distance in Texas law. more than a century ago.
This despite the fact that, as the plaintiffs argued when they won this case in 2018, Texas Central has no tracks, trains or stations, and is not guaranteed to ever have any: In their brief to SCOTX, the plaintiffs argue that the law should “protect Texas landowners from ill-equipped entities…that seek to seize land for speculative projects only to inevitably abandon it…” Debra Lehrman writes that the legislature could limit eminent domain in such situations, “but it simply did not”.