Other Voices

What if bullet trains frighten the cows and there’s no milk?

High-speed trains like this one in Japan are proposed for a Dallas-Houston route.
High-speed trains like this one in Japan are proposed for a Dallas-Houston route.

The newspapers report that Vice President Joe Biden supports the latest effort to bring high-speed rail service between Dallas and Houston being pursued by Texas Central Partners.

The same edition contained the age-old story of Texas rural landowners opposed to the project.

So what’s new?

I personally have seen this movie before.

Former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes headed up a more ambitious effort to bring such service to four Texas cities back in 1989 in conjunction with a French railway giant

Like the Dallas venture, it was to be privately financed.

Dubbed the TGV Supertrain, it would also have included Austin and San Antonio in the system, along with Dallas and Houston, thus covering a much wider swath of right of way.

Predictably, aroused landowners rose up in anger over the invasion of their property.

That opposition was aided and abetted by Southwest Airlines, which feared the coming competition.

The anti forces played effectively on concerns of rural residents along the routes as they raised the specter of all sorts of dark consequences from the insidious trains.

One narrative warned that milk cows along the routes would be so alarmed that they would stop giving milk.

I had a ringside seat in that battle.

Our public relations firm, Read-Poland Associates, handled communications for the project, working under San Antonio business executive Glenn Biggs, who took over as CEO in 1991.

We had our hands full responding to a stream of misrepresentation and unfounded claims of the opposition.

I personally became involved in combating the milk cows scare.

I traveled to France and rode a TGV train through a picturesque rural area south on Paris to check out claims of their distress.

I returned with photographs of herds of cows serenely munching grass only yards from the speeding train, without even tuning their heads.

As part of our effort to overcome opposition, we staged 35 community meetings along the routes to correct misinformation and answer questions about the project.

Regretfully, fears stoked by the opposition prevailed.

The death knell came when primary finance partner Morrison Knudsen pulled the funding plug in the face of a looming payment milestone required by the Texas High Speed Rail Authority.

Thus Texas lost the opportunity of a lifetime to have a transportation alternative to today’s jammed and treacherous highways.

The enormity of that loss can be illustrated by looking at the estimated cost of that visionary effort compared to that of today’s new more modest plan.

The projected cost of the 1990s Supertrain system — serving Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin — totaled $5 billion.

By contrast, backers of the proposed new high-speed rail project a cost estimate of $10 billion for a Dallas-Houston line alone.

But good luck, Texas Central Partners! And look out for those cows and their owners.

Julian Read, a Fort Worth native and Austin resident, is the retired chairman of Cohn & Wolfe Texas. His preceding company, Read-Poland Associates, represented Texas TGV. He wrote this for the TexasOffTtheRecord blog.