Category Archives: Investigative Report

Hello, Media? There’s a Train Coming…

By Chris Daigle

For some reason, the big players in Houston and Texas media continue to ignore one of the biggest news stories of our day. Maybe they’re too focused on a certain judge in Washington, or posting photo galleries of the best neighborhoods to live in or best restaurants to eat at, and can’t find the time. In the process, corporate-owned media in Texas are missing an opportunity to do their real jobs as watchdogs for the rest of us.

You’ve probably heard about the purported high speed train that will one day in the far, far future connect the booming economies of Houston and Dallas. You’ve seen snippets of smiling politicians lauding the innovative (yep, that’s the word for everything now) technology of modern trains, and you’ve seen public relations pieces boasting of a new board chairman or a new CEO joining the team of Texas Central Railroad (TCR) to forever change the way we travel in Texas.

What you aren’t reading anywhere is an in-depth analytical look at the feasibility of this project, the money that surrounds it, the public endearment that it is certainly not capturing, and the way a high speed train will factor into transportation a decade from now. For the life of me, I can’t understand why big media outlets haven’t jumped on the opportunity to do some real, if difficult, work.

The latest news about Texas Central Partners and its “bullet train” was quietly released last week in the Dallas Morning News: “Texas Central Partners has secured a $300 million loan to continue its pursuit of a new 240-mile high speed rail route from Houston to Dallas. The company said it will use the financing to move ahead on permitting, design, and engineering on what would be the first high speed rail in Texas.” The loan is a tiny percentage, they say, of the total $15 billion project overall cost. Others estimate it will cost closer to $20 billion.

For anyone who has followed the slow drip of news on this project since its 2015 announcement, the $300 million loan should serve as sticker shock to the general public. The reason? The interest bearing loan comes from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, and the Japan Overseas Infrastructure Investment Corporation for Transport and Urban Development. Say that real fast at a party, and nobody goes home drunk.

Good on the Dallas Morning News for at least reporting about the loan (I could find nothing in the Houston Chronicle lately). But if you know the background of this project, and the promises made by Texas Central Railroad, we should all raise an eyebrow.

TCR has constantly told us they have local investments worth enough to get the project to the construction phase. To a bum like me, I took that to mean they would get through all the studies and permitting, and consulting work needed to start laying the first columns of concrete.

I read through the tea leaves, whatever those are, and discovered that wasn’t the case at all. Instead, they needed $300 million additional, and somehow can’t find the complete funding locally (in America) to continue the project without the help of two Japanese banks. To answer your upcoming question, Texas Central Railroad plans to use Japanese technology – not compatible with high speed rails across the rest of the world – to build this new rail system. No wonder our friends from the Far East have ponied up the dollars to get the project through the U.S. government’s approval process.

Interestingly, news of this loan brought one of the larger opponents of the project out of public hiding last week. A company called SNCF America, the Maryland based arm of the French National railway company which is based in Paris, France (not Paris, Texas). They jumped on news of the Japanese bank loan.

Scott Dunaway, a spokesman for SNCF America, said, “Texas Central Partners comes clean on its empty promise of private funding led by Texas investors. Now Japanese taxpayer funds are being loaned to finance the planned Texas to Houston rail. Two Japanese government agencies are supporting an attempt to corner the market with technology that lacks interoperability (won’t match other rail systems anywhere) and creates a monopoly on the future of Texas high speed rail.”

I tried to contact Dunaway directly to get more information on his company’s concerns. As the spokesman for the company, I thought he seemed a logical place to start. I was told Dunaway the Spokesman, “Isn’t conducting interviews, but talk to SNCF America’s President and CEO, Alain Leray. I thought that would be great, but Leray works in Paris, and he was counting sheep when I needed an interview.

My point is, SNCF probably has as much to lose (or gain) from what happens to this TCR bullet train as any other company in the world, so you have to be careful using their information to form educated opinions on the project.

That gets me back to where we started. Where are our major media players when we need them most? Sorry, but this reporter is a one-man show. Ne team of investigative reporters here, so the best thing to do is sound the alarm.

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Northwest Mall: New rail depot for shoppers, or an architect’s next bold vision in glass and steel? We’re still waiting. (Photo: Chris Daigle)

So I will ask the pressing questions to help our brethren in the big media to look this way. Is there any possible way this project is going to happen? Hopefully not, say the legions of landowners whose lives and property will be disrupted by this ongoing drama. A few months ago, it was announced that Northwest Mall, standing proud across the highway from the tracks since 1967, would be the Houston stop for the bullet train. Does that mean a dash to Palais Royal for shoes and shirts before heading to Dallas? Does that mean no more mall, and the lot stays barren for a decade while we wait for construction? Estimates for completion are for 2024, but delays in starting mean delays in finishing.

Has anyone bothered to think about the future of transportation around this concept of high speed rail? For instance, TCR says you won’t sweat the drive to Dallas anymore. Just watch a movie or get some work done on the 90-minute run in comfort. But aren’t there self driving cars that accomplish the same thing coming right up? Has anyone taken a look at the California high speed train project? It’s a catastrophe, and getting worse. We should be paying attention.

With me being in Houston, and the Grapevine Source being near Dallas, this seems like a seamless solution to get to the office one day. But if the parent company already needs foreign money just to complete the studies, is it really that great of an idea?

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Chris Daigle is a Houston historian, photojournalist and a regular contributor to The Grapevine Source. To read more of his articles, click HERE.