Prospects for Texas commuter and inter-city railToday is a bit rushed, so I'd like to pass-along an email dialogue I had with reader David Gratvol (with his permission) on prospects for rail to Galveston, College Station, and in the Texas Triangle. Before we get to that though, I'd like to take a short moment to recognize and celebrate Houston Strategies' two-year anniversary. I've learned a ton, both from having to cohere my scattered thoughts into written form as well as from your insightful comments. I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have, and I'm looking forward to the next two years (and beyond). As always, thanks for your readership.
On to the dialogue:
> Dear Mr. Gattis
> I have been a steady reader of your blog for the past
> year and I wanted to tell you that I find it quite
> enjoyable and informative. Your suggestions and advice
> on how to improve our city while still keeping level a
> headed view of what is realistic and what is simply
> "pie in the sky" ideas are refreshing and encouraging.
> Though one of the issues that I wish to ask you about
> is your view on commuter rail. While you have stated
> your dislike quite clearly you seem to have made an
> exception for a Galveston line which I found
> intriguing. As a college student spending the past
> year and a half between Houston and New York it is
> clear why a commuter rail is a success in New York and
> cannot be in Houston. That is New York has weak road
> system for its population resulting in long and
> complicated routes from the suburbs to the city as
> well as a chronic lack of affordable parking. Houston
> is blessed to have the exact opposite (maybe too
> That being said a Galveston line would not primarily
> be for daily commuters to Houston or Galveston but it
> would act more like an intercity rail line. That begs
> the question weather other commuter lines could also
> be good for Houston if the focus was more to make them
> frequent (and maybe high speed) intercity lines. The
> one that comes to mind is the 290 idea that would run
> a line from downtown Houston to College Station.
> Naturally all the logistics and cost would need to
> With all that said I wanted to know your opinion on
> this and the possibility of other intercity lines such
> as the infamous Texas Triangle and the new Texas T
> bone. Maybe on a slow day you could write a blog on
> the subject. Anyways thank you for taking your time to
> read this and I would be grateful to any feedback.
> David Gratvol
Thank you for your very kind compliments. Here are the reasons a Galveston line can make sense:
1) local transit at both ends to get you to your final destination
2) highly populated corridor
3) regular congestion on the existing freeway
4) tourism potential in addition to commuters (better overall utilization
for the capital cost)
5) existing tracks that make the cost much more reasonable
Unfortunately, College Station would lack 4 of these 5 (I think the tracks
exist, but I don't know their freight utilization). It really even lacks
commuters. The Galveston line has a major job center at Clear Lake in
addition to downtown and Galveston, so people could live near any of those 3 and commute to another one. There are limited job centers along a line to College Station, and essentially no daily commuters between the two. Because of that, I think Greyhound service is probably adequate between Houston and CS.
As far as broader inter-city rail in Texas, I'm very skeptical of the costs
vs. the benefits, especially because most of the cities in Texas don't have
very robust local transit. It works in the DC-Boston corridor because it's
not hard to get the last few miles to your final destination on local lines,
but that's not true in Texas. If a person's going to have to rent a car or
use a taxi anyway, they really might as well take a cheap and fast flight on
Southwest (or take a Greyhound bus, or just drive themselves). California
is actively looking at intercity high speed rail, and they have a much
higher population and more density than Texas, along with more local
transit, better pedestrian weather, and much more congested freeways and airports. My thinking is wait and see if California successfully pulls it
off first. If so, then maybe Texas should start taking a look.
> Dear Mr Gattis
> Thank you for responding to me so quickly. I would
> just like to add a few more points before bringing
> this question to a close.
> Your five points on what is needed for a viable
> commuter rail are accurate, but the reason I suggested
> that a Houston- College Station rail is not because it
> fits the classic definition of what is needed for a
> commuter rail. the other Metro proposal one towards
> the south west fits that one but falls because of your
> The reason I suggested it was because of what is in
> College Station. Namely Texas A & M University.
> so point 1 about poor local transportation is mute if
> the station ends on the campus itself.
> Its also quite possible that the University itself
> would be willing to subsidize the construction and/or
> the fare cost for its students (Rice University
> provides free year light rail passes for all its
> Also Princeton has a small rail line off the NJ
> transit rail that goes straight to the campus.
> To say that A & M would not do something similar is
> not out of the realm of possibility
> Granted the idea would need to be explored, but I
> think it justifies a full ridership analysis to see if
> it would be justifiable. Keep in mind it would have
> other stops so like Jersey Village and Hempstad so
> others would use it to go to Downtown.
> As for the point about intercity rail I have to agree.
> California and the Midwest (around Chicago) have more
> demand for high speed rail. Though I dont quite agree
> that we should wait until California has rail to move
> forward. As you know these things take years (if not
> decades) it could take 15 years for those areas to
> have an effective system, if not longer. To start
> after them would mean Texas high speed rail in 30
> years. Rather it might be a good idea to say 3-5 years
> behind California , but still move the process along.
> We do not want to start a system that is ineffective,
> but on the other hand it would be worse to start one
> when we badly need it. As for your concern about poor
> local transit. With the Light rail in Houston and Dart
> growth in Dallas and even Austin's moves in 20 years
> when it would arrive we will have good local transit.
> Also the point about a quick flight on South West. The
> point would be that the rail could get you from
> downtown to downtown faster than SW could.
> David Gratvol
I'm just not sure TAMU would generate enough riders to justify a line that long (90+ miles). Princeton does have rail to NYC (50m away), but it also surrounded by suburbs with employees that commute to Manhattan - not the case in College Station. I'm all for better ties between Houston and TAMU though. Maybe there needs to be very nice bus (more upscale than Greyhound - nice seats, tray tables and power for laptops, wireless Internet), that does the route on an express basis (few stops) on a pretty regular schedule. Something that gets a bit of marketing/branding so people know about it and use it. "Aggie Express"?
I agree high speed rail might get you downtown to downtown faster than SWA. But only a tiny percentage of Houston and Dallas jobs are in their downtowns (less than 7% in Houston's case, worse in Dallas). DFW in particular has them spread all over the place. And it would cost tens of billions to move maybe 2-3 thousand people/day, saving them maybe half an hour or so vs. flying. Houston's LRT, for example, cost about $300m for 7.5 miles to move more than 40,000 people a day, and even that's on the edge financially and subsidized (tickets don't cover costs, as opposed to aviation).
Your thoughts welcome in the comments. David also gave me permission to share his email, if you'd like to contact him. In a format to thwart spam-bots, it's gravtol (at) yahoo.com.