Need to get from San Antonio to Dallas? You could fly, or hop in the car and get on the perpetually-under-construction I-35. There’s another way, if you’ve got time to spare. Amtrak has long operated daily trains via its Texas Eagle route, which runs from San Antonio through Austin to Dallas, then on to Chicago. But a four-and-a-half hour trip turns into more than eight hours when you take the train, not counting delays.
But with funding potentially available from the new infrastructure bill, Amtrak has big plans for improving travel along the Texas Triangle, like adding more trains on its Texas Eagle route between San Antonio and Dallas, and adding a route from Houston to Dallas.
William Vantuono, editor-in-chief of Railway Age, calls the plan an “augmentation, an infusion of money that would allow Amtrak to increase services, develop faster, more reliable corridor type services between city pairs.”
Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below to learn more about why train travel in Texas has been stymied, and what could make it profitable and popular.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: What would we be looking at under this new infrastructure plan? Are we talking about an overhaul of Amtrak?
William Vantuono: I think, not necessarily an overhaul, but augmentation – an infusion of money that would allow Amtrak to increase services and develop faster, more reliable corridor-type services between city pairs.
When it comes to Texas, we’re not talking about just a pair of cities. We’re talking about linking together Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Houston and back up to Dallas. They call it the Texas Triangle. But there is another plan that a lot of Texans have heard about to connect cities by rail the Texas Central High Speed Rail Line. So what would this big plan for Amtrak mean for something like Texas Central?
Well, it could. It depends upon what Amtrak is able to offer between Houston and Dallas. It’s not so much about speed. It’s about trip time – competitive trip time compared to driving or flying point to point.
Hasn’t that been the problem for Amtrak? Could we ever have a shuttle service operating here in Texas?
It can happen anywhere, of course.
How realistic is that, though, given the delays that people are experiencing?
The delays are attributable mainly to the fact that Amtrak is a tenant on a very busy freight corridor. So if Amtrak is going to use the existing right-of-way between Dallas and Houston, which I believe is the Union Pacific, they’re going to have to work out an agreement with Union Pacific for increasing train frequency and speed, and that would most likely involve building some new dedicated passenger tracks on the existing Union Pacific right-of-way. That’s possible with the funding.
Would this infrastructure package pay for this sort of vision from Amtrak?
Yes, it would. It will. Absolutely.
What impediments are there to this infrastructure bill moving forward when it comes to the Amtrak portion of it?
It is resistance for whatever reason that comes mostly from the Republican Party, that is for the most part, loathe to pay for any sort of public service. And passenger rail is a public service.
You’d think that there would be a real incentive for business development, for example.
There is a real incentive, and all you have to do is look at the light rail systems in Dallas and Houston, which are highly successful and are expanding. Initially, there was a lot of opposition, but now people see the community growth, the business development growth. And now [people say] ‘oh, we couldn’t do without this. It’s wonderful.’ Well, it goes for any passenger rail system. Build it and they will come
There hasn’t been a whole lot of clamor for commuter rail between these cities. The idea has been out there for a long time. What do you think it would take to get Texans to buy into passenger rail again?
Again, it’s competitive trip time. It is frequency, reliability and comfort.
Would that require anything, any changes on Amtrak’s part? Can they promise the kind of reliable service that say airlines provide?
Yes, given the proper level of funding and given the proper level of cooperation and input from the state of Texas, as well as the federal government and the cooperation and of the of the railroad. In this case, it would be the Union Pacific, provided that the freight service, which is essential to the nation’s economy, is not compromised.
This would be a rather revolutionary proposition for Texas. Is a lot of this the hype that you see built up around big bills like the infrastructure bill?
Actually, no, because this has been done in other areas of the country. A prime example is the Capitol corridor in California, which is a state paid-for service operated by Amtrak on Union Pacific right-of-way. It is a model for developing cooperative freight and passenger railroad relationships. It’s highly successful, Why can’t it be done in Texas? It could be.