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Like a bullet to the heart of Texas: METRO bigwig believes in high-speed Japanese train plan

Like a bullet to the heart of Texas: METRO bigwig believes in high-speed Japanese train plan

Dallas may be closer than you think: in trips of approximately 90 minutes or maybe even only 40-minutes, passengers on Japanese bullet trains could commute between Houston and the Metroplex.

It may sound like a fantasy, but talks are already taking place to make it a reality.

At a meeting held by the Greater Houston Partnership this week, the city's blue chip business leaders received a pitch from Yoshiyuki Kasai, chairman of Central Japan Railway, reports Houston Tomorrow. JR Central is Japan's largest rail company and originators of famed Japanese "bullet trains."

The largely privately-financed project will potentially operate the needle-nosed Shinkasen Series N700 train, billed by Japan Railways as the world's fastest bullet train in service, with a top speed of 186 mph (France's faster TGV train has been used only to break speed records). Japanese trains are regarded worldwide for their efficiency, speed and punctuality. During the meeting, Kasai briefed region's business leaders on details and opportunities that Houston-Dallas high-speed rail service would bring to the Houston region, all part of his "bullet-train diplomacy" agenda to foster broader ties between the two countries.

JR Central showcased its trains to representatives from United States high-speed rail groups and embassies in November 2009, during which its N700 model accelerated to 205 mph within minutes of leaving a station in western Japan.

"It was probably the smoothest high-speed train I've been on," Robert Eckels, chairman of nonprofit Texas High Speed Rail & Transportation, told Bloomberg News as he stood on the platform after the midnight run. Eckels' group aims to link San Antonio, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston by 2020.

"The service is pretty amazing," agrees METRO board member Christof Spieler, who also experienced the N700 firsthand last year. "You don't even have to look at a timetable, the trains are so constant," Spieler tells CultureMap.

Having attended Monday's meeting with Kasai, Spieler notes, "I was amazed at how committed they are to Texas. They see it as the best place in the U.S. for high speed rail, and they're putting a lot of energy into this project."

Spieler, who is also the director of technology and innovation at Morris Architects, strongly believes in the viability of a Houston-Dallas train route: "There's a high level of demand, it's a perfect distance and the flat landscape makes for relatively easy construction."

While local airlines Continental and Southwest already offer multiple daily flights between the cities, regional flights of that sort are largely unprofitable for airline corporations (Continental makes a lot more money flying to Dubai than Dallas). Continental is even working in cooperation with Amtrak in the Northeast to co-share trip planning, meaning that passengers can book a flight through Continental from Houston to Philadelphia that actually lands in Newark, N.J. but includes an Amtrak train ticket from Newark to downtown Philadelphia.

"Both Continental and Dallas-based American Airlines have said informally that they support rail in Texas," Spieler reports.

Spieler also argues that rail travel between the cities would be a competitive option for Texans already accustomed to the low prices of commuter air. "It would be a no-brainer — trains are more comfortable and passengers can be more productive. You don't have to take off your shoes to get through security. You can get good food. The time you're spending in transit is a lot more useful and pleasant.

JR Central has also been touting its maglev train, which, having been tested at 361 mph, would allow for a dreamy 40-minute ride.  The Wall Street Journal describes the way it works this way:

Maglev trains use powerful magnets that allow the train to skim along its guideway without touching it, reducing friction. JR Central's trains float 10 centimeters above the guideway but need supercooled, superconducting magnets to generate lift. The train still uses wheels because it lifts clear of the guideway only after picking up speed.

To date, the only maglev is a 32-kilometer line between Shanghai's Pudong airport and its financial district (another line in Japan does not reach the top speed because it's too short). An American maglev was first pushed in Florida earlier this year.

The Japanese corporation isn't the only company with eyes on the expanding high speed rail network in America. Alstom of France, Siemens of Germany, Bomardier of Canada, General Electric and Lockheed Martin also have their hands in the transit pot.

"The Europeans and other Asian competitors are all eyeing the U.S. market," Michael Finnegan, an executive vice president at U.S.-Japan High-Speed Rail told Bloomberg. "The competition will be fierce."

But with a multi-billion dollar price tag, we may never see the bullet train come to fruition. Texas largely lost out on the Obama administration's $8 billion national rail initiative because of disorganized proposals in comparison to states like California and Florida. As transportation secretary Ray LaHood points out, Texas still can't "get its act together."

While local public agencies are conducting sluggish studies about the viability of a mid-speed rail network in a T-shape to connect the states' four largest metropolises, JR Central — which claims they had sights on Texas before the stimulus bill — is moving full steam ahead with its plan to connect Houston and Dallas. 

In November, JR Central will release a detailed study of the train's alignments and construction costs. The adept business masterminds associated with the GHP may surprise the country and fanagle something almost entirely private. "If they pulled that off, that would be pretty unusual," Spieler says.

Referring back to this week's meeting, he adds, "The confident tone communicates that they're seeing something that makes them feel incredibly positive."

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Japan's Shinkansen Series N700 Wikipedia
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The interior of Series N700
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First-class seats on Japan's bullet train