Landmark study shows tradition of expertise at TTI — the need for intercity rail

Then

In the 1970s, the governor of Texas and State Legislature asked the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) to evaluate rail for intercity travel. Below is an abridged version of the article published on this study in the April 1977 issue of the Texas Transportation Researcher.

Historical Overview of Rail in Texas

In the early 1800s what is now Texas was a vast undeveloped area. Lack of adequate transportation precluded the development of the state’s inland resources.

The first railroad [in Texas was operated] in 1853. Up until 1930, when approximately 17,000 miles of track existed in Texas, virtually all of it served both passenger and freight operations. [This] early railroad construction allowed inland developments to grow [as] did the demand for intercity transportation.

As a result, in heavily traveled corridors, an interurban rail service developed. This operation provided frequent, inexpensive service and provided the conventional railroads with their first significant competition. By 1915, although the interurbans operated over only 3 percent of the track-miles in Texas, they were serving 20 percent of the intercity travel demands.

[However, from] 1920 to 1930 rail ridership decreased by nearly 75 percent. [With] the development of paved highways, the flexibility of auto travel caused it to be extremely popular, and travel by this mode increased rapidly. Rail remained, however, the premier mode of travel for long intercity trips.

After World War II, commercial air service rapidly became the most popular mode for servicing long distance travel. The bus had become the least expensive mode of travel, and the flexibility of the auto caused it to be the desired mode of travel for short trips. As fewer persons used the rail mode, its financial condition deteriorated. The U.S. Congress responded by enacting the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970, which created Amtrack. Between 1970 and 1975, train-miles and passengers served in the state declined by 40 percent.

Conclusions and Recommendations

  • The existing transportation capacity in both the Dallas-Fort Worth to Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth to San Antonio corridors will be inadequate by 1990. It is recommended that action be taken to increase transportation capacity in those corridors.
  • Some increased capacity will be provided by the air mode. However, this increased capacity, by itself, will not be sufficient to serve increasing passenger and freight travel. Some improvement in either highway capacity or rail passenger capacity will be needed.
  • An initial comparison of highway versus rail suggests that improving highway capacity (i.e., expanding I-45 and I-35 from their present four lanes to at least six lanes) may be the better approach. It is recommended that a study be undertaken to more accurately determine the feasibility and cost of that alternative.
  • In order to accommodate projected travel demand, any increase in capacity should become operational between 1985 and 1990.
  • The State of Texas should become involved in multimodal intercity transportation planning. Without such planning, it is quite possible that the cost and congestion associated with intercity travel will, based on current design standards, become unacceptable. This will adversely affect the economy of the state.

Now

The song “City of New Orleans” tells the story of a lonely train with “15 cars and 15 restless riders” making its way along the 500 miles from Chicago to New Orleans. The lyrics would have you believe that this proud, stately way of travel belongs to a bygone era.

But the Age of Rail just might be returning.

While no solution to congestion is inexpensive, simply building more roadway has become increasingly cost-prohibitive in the last decade or so.

“At one time, building more highway capacity was judged the most cost-effective way to meet mobility needs,” explains Curtis Morgan, program manager of TTI‘s Rail Research Program. “In fact, TTI research conducted in the 1970s proved that point.” (See the historical story above for more on this study.)

Now, more than 30 years later, new factors, such as changing demographics and a burgeoning state population more on the move than ever, have changed the equation significantly. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) predicts that, over the next 25 years, the population of the state will increase by 64 percent, and road use will grow by 214 percent. By comparison, state road capacity will only grow by 6 percent if funding remains at recent historical levels.

“Given these projections, we asked TTI to provide recommendations on where to invest resources for developing the statewide transit system further,” explains Orlando Jamandre, TxDOT‘s project director.

Morgan and his team examined 18 different intercity corridors, ranking them by projected needs through the year 2035. They based their analysis on

  • Current and future population and demographic projections along the corridors;
  • Projected future demand based upon forecasts by the Texas State Demographer and other state agencies and
  • Current network capacity and routes for intercity highway, bus, air and rail travel.

Morgan’s team found that trains, along with enhanced intercity bus transit, have the potential to significantly aid in meeting Texas’ future capacity needs.

I-35 and I-45 — considered the most traveled corridors in the state — are currently at 80 percent capacity when measuring traffic between cities on a weighted, per-mile basis. TTI found that, by 2035, those two corridors and 11 others will exceed 100 percent of current capacity. In fact, some highway sections in the urban areas may be approaching or exceeding capacity now. Unlike their 1970s predecessors, the research team found that additional highway lanes — at today’s prices — may not be the most cost-effective way of addressing growing intercity travel demand.

TTI isn’t saying that trains and buses are the solution. Highway, air, rail and transit all have a part to play. Equally important, cities need to develop local transit options (like the Dallas Area Rapid Transit, or DART, system) that seamlessly interface with intercity solutions, so travelers aren’t left without a way of getting around once they reach their destinations.

“The results of this project will help us plan how to best optimize the state’s future transportation system,” says Jamandre.

This Issue

The Future of Rail in Texas

v45n3_cover

Volume 45, Number 3
September 2009
Issue Overview

On this page:

U.S. map with Texas magnified

For more information:

Curtis Morgan
(979) 862-2854
curtis-m@tamu.edu