Fort Worth

French involvement in Texas high-speed rail? Mais oui!

A Eurostar train at St. Pancras Station in London on Jan. 17, 2015. The French company that operates Eurostar, SNCF, has a North American division that is exploring a possible involvement in Texas high-speed rail.
A Eurostar train at St. Pancras Station in London on Jan. 17, 2015. The French company that operates Eurostar, SNCF, has a North American division that is exploring a possible involvement in Texas high-speed rail. AP

A company that operates France’s national high-speed rail network is exploring possible involvement in Texas bullet trains.

“We’re here to listen, learn and evaluate,” Alain Leray, president and chief executive of SNCF America Inc., said Monday during a visit to downtown Fort Worth.

Leray and a colleague with SNCF, France’s state-owned railway company, attended a two-hour meeting of the Texas high-speed rail commission and later met privately with officials planning the project.

The high-speed rail commission was formed a little more than a year ago by the Texas Department of Transportation to plan for a possible bullet train network connecting Houston, Dallas, Arlington, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio.

The Houston-to-Dallas portion is being vigorously pursued by Texas Central Railway, a company that would use technology from Japan’s JR Central Railway to set up a rail line with trains capable of traveling 220 mph. That group aims to open its service by 2021, using an estimated $10 billion in private investment funding, and is paying for its own federal environmental study.

But while the Japan-U.S. partnership is dominating the planning effort of the Houston-to-Dallas line, the possible creation of a high-speed rail system that would connect six or more of the state’s largest cities — including not only Houston and Dallas, but also Arlington, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio — is garnering interest from other investors.

Among them is SNCF, whose parent company operates Eurostar train service connecting Great Britain and France, with trains running under the English Channel in a “Channel Tunnel” — or “Chunnel,” as it is often called.

SNCF also operates trains throughout France and Monaco, including France’s well-known TGV high-speed rail service. The company also has several operations in the Western Hemisphere. A subsidiary of SNCF, Keolis, operates the Virginia Railway Express commuter line.

Leray is based in Maryland, but has traveled to Texas a handful of times in recent months to gauge the interest of the state’s residents and their elected leaders to build high-speed rail.

Leray said his firm’s emphasis is on providing high-speed rail services to multiple destinations, including downtown areas. That philosophy could be in contrast to that of the Japan-U.S. partnership, which is emphasizing only a point-to-point connection between Houston and Dallas.

Some critics say the proposed Houston-to-Dallas service will do little more than fill a void for airline service between the cities now that flight restrictions at Dallas’ Love Field have been removed, allowing Southwest Airlines to concentrate on long-distance service.

“Right now, all you have is a connection from outside Houston to Dallas,” Leray said. “My question is, is that what the people of Texas want?”

Texas Central Railway is on course to have its draft environmental document released by the middle of this year, and a federal record of decision by mid- to late-2016 allowing construction to begin on the Houston-to-Dallas line. During a handful of public meetings, some residents, especially in rural areas, have criticized the proposed Houston-to-Dallas line, saying they don’t want a rail service that primarily benefits urban areas cutting through their lands.

Texas Central Railway is trying to do a better job communicating the project to the public to assuage those concerns, spokesman Travis Kelly said.

Kelly said his firm would also welcome involvement by SNCF or any other companies into the planning efforts.

However, the involvement of multiple companies raises questions about connectivity. For example, as it stands now, there are no plans by either SNCF or Texas Central Railway to share technology or allow one entity’s trains on the other’s tracks.

That would seem to create a dilemma for North Texas planners, who have said all along they would support a high-speed rail system in the Metroplex only if there were stops in Arlington and Fort Worth, in addition to Houston and Dallas, and only if a rider could travel among all those cities without changing trains.

But Bill Meadows, a former Fort Worth City Council member who is chairman of the high-speed rail commission, said he is confident questions about connectivity can be addressed.

Members of Meadows’ body — known on state documents as the Commission for High-Speed Rail in Dallas/Fort Worth even though its planning includes other cities such as Austin and San Antonio — also have traveled to Washington to seek support from Texas’ congressional delegation.

A key issue for elected leaders not only in Washington but also Austin is how to pay for a high-speed rail system. With the Houston-to-Dallas route, it’s more clear cut, with Texas Central Railway saying it will raise its own funds.

But the rest of the system could require a significant amount of public money — perhaps billions of dollars. However, high-speed rail commission members and supporters are emphasizing that the money wouldn’t necessarily come from taxpayers.

On the contrary, during Monday’s meeting, at least 16 other forms of funding were identified by Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. Those include such sources as capturing property values from land developments around train stations, raising funds from train station parking and even offering limited forms of freight transport on the high-speed rail lines — for example, harvested organs that must be rushed to a donor, Morris said.

“If there’s an organ donation, we might be able to move it four times faster on high-speed rail than on an airplane,” Morris said.

The Dallas-Arlington-Fort Worth line is a standalone project on the high-speed rail group’s planning documents, but it really is “a linchpin, part of a larger system” that includes Houston, Austin and San Antonio, said Erik Steavens, director of the rail division of the state transportation department.

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

Twitter: @gdickson