Driving on the highway: Everyone in Texas can relate to this activity. For a lot of people, it means congestion, construction, and consternation. The proposed Texas Bullet Train hopes to eliminate these issues for many Texans.
The Texas Bullet Train concept was initiated in 2008, when two longtime friends from different continents decided it was time to work together. Richard Lawless, chairman of the board of Texas Central, had spent time working for the U.S. government in Southeast Asia and became friends with Yoshiyuki Kasai, chairman of the Central Japanese Railway Company, which operates the Tokaido Shinkansen, a privatized and profitable high-speed train line between Osaka and Tokyo.
The friendship moved into business in the mid 2000s, when Kasai suggested to Lawless that he bring this proprietary rail system to the United States. The system is the only one of its specific type in the world at the moment, and the Tokyo line has had no train-related fatalities or injuries in its 50 years of operation. Largely responsible for this statistic is its dedicated track — one factor that sets the proposed Texas Bullet Train apart from other high-speed rail proposals.
Research began in 2009 to locate the best “paired cities” in the U.S. Ninety-seven starting point/destination city pairs were considered, with Dallas/Houston the clear winner in all categories, and thus Texas Central Partners came to be. Before any search for project funding began, Texas Central thoroughly researched on the phenomenon of the train itself: Environmental impact, fatal flaw detection, property implications, endangered frog species habitation studies, consumer analyses, profitability research — all were completed prior to any quest for financing.
Upon signing, in January 2014, a memorandum of understanding among the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the Texas Department of Transportation, and a third party environmental study group, the project moved from feasibility to the practical work of finding money, planning routes, and coordinating with governmental agencies. The Texas Bullet Train is a privately funded effort, which Texas Central hopes will garner it support: They did not bother asking the Texas Legislature for money in 2017.
Los Angeles-based consulting firm AECOM was selected to perform an environmental impact study, scheduled for completion at the end of 2017. Furthermore, Texas Central had to create rules and regulations for the bullet train that the FRA would approve. Here, they are blazing a trail.
Planning to begin construction in 2018, Texas Central has already delved into design work for the system. Transferring technology from Japan requires modifying tracks and trains to meet U.S. requirements. ADA regulations concerning wheelchair maneuverability and safety, as well as a restroom in every car (not required in Japan), led to a partial redesign of train cars.
The quest for property acquisition is underway, but cannot be completed until the final train route is established. There are currently six routes under consideration that connect urban areas across the rural landscape.
Texas Central consulted with various transit design teams, but a stumbling block involving manned ticket booths (which don’t fit into Texas Central’s “future forward” vision) led them to seek input from a younger generation of designers who would most likely also be users. They chose to reach out to all eight accredited architecture schools in the state of Texas. Texas Central received mostly favorable responses and in time issued a student competition RFP for railway station designs.
Competition entries were to be for one of three locations: Dallas, Brazos, or Houston. Instructions called for the sustainable, technology-forward design of a railway station that would create a vibrant location within its prescribed location. Although the timeline was short — about three months — the competition drew in over 200 applications from interested student teams. Once the deadline for submission arrived, a total of 45 submissions represented more than 100 students from architecture schools around the state.
The panel of judges conducted a preliminary review and cut the field to 13 finalists. Using design boards, models, and short presentations, students formally addressed the judges on November 18, 2016, in Dallas. Category winners, announced on November 30 by Texas Central, received cash prizes along with a donation to the college they represented.
Texas Central was enthusiastic about the level of participation and the results of the student competition. Most of the competition boards are currently on display at the company’s office in Dallas.
Rail Station Architectural Design: Julia Green, UT Arlington – Featuring the most iconic design, this entry celebrated the station and railway tracks as separate entities. The strong expression of the structural elements that support the tracks is separated from the purity of the simple box situated underneath and between the track supports. The presentation model was exceptional and impressed the judges. The design maintained a strong and clear identity as a rail station and was thoughtfully integrated.
Urban Design: Dana Moore, Nathan Chen, U.J. Song, Hannah Williams, and Alex Davila, UT Austin – This entry gave the most attention to its connection with the City of Dallas. By means of its planning and architecture, the station made bold gestures to link parts of the South Dallas and Trinity River areas to the downtown core. The concept expressed the need for the station to function not only as a gateway to the city, but also as a connector for the various portions of the south part of downtown, which currently seem discordant.
Sustainable Design: Ledell Thomas and Kaylah Wesley, Prairie View A&M – This proposed station for the Brazos Valley thoughtfully incorporated multiple elements of sustainability. The students spoke clearly, and their presentation was visually engaging. The station’s design also made some enterprising programmatic choices, including incorporating a hotel and farmers market.
Andrew Hawkins, AIA, is principal of Hawkins Architecture in College Station.