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How Southwest Squashed High-Speed Rail in Texas

The Dallas-based airline is widely-considered to be a main driver in the demise of early-1990s plans to bring high-speed rail to Texas.

Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 airplanes at Dallas Love Field (Photo: Shutterstock)

In the early 1990s, a bullet train named the Texas TGV promised to revolutionize transportation in the Lone Star State. The sleek French technology would have rapidly moved passengers between the so-called ‘Texas Triangle,’ including Dallas, Houston, Austin, and Houston in roughly 90 minutes. However, the project never got out of the station, and Southwest Airlines shoulders much of the blame.

Southwest, the dominant carrier for short-haul flights within Texas at the time, saw the TGV as a major threat. The airline wasn’t shy about its opposition. According to a 1995 Southern Methodist University (SMU) journal issue, the Dallas-based airline took aim at the project by challenging federal tax-exempt bonds to develop the rail network.

In addition, Southwest encouraged the “Texas legislative prohibition of the use of state money for the high-speed rail program,” the journal reads. The airline also challenged the creation of the Texas TGV Consortium.

Touting Point-to-Point Route Network

The airline argued that its existing service offered a convenient and affordable option, highlighting the high upfront costs of building a high-speed rail network. Public relations efforts portrayed the TGV as an unrealistic train to nowhere.

In one legal brief, it was estimated that 60% of local air passengers would be directed to the new rail system. According to The Texas Tribune, Herb Kelleher, Southwest’s Founder and CEO at the time, stated that the carrier would likely raise fares on some intra-Texas routes while also cutting others.

“Rail has a romantic appeal; but, this case cannot be decided on the basis of nostalgia, or even a desire to emulate the rail service of France and Germany,” Southwest Airlines said in the 1991 brief. “The American reality is that high-speed rail will be viable in Texas only by destroying the convenient and inexpensive transportation service the airlines now provide, and only by absorbing huge public subsidies.”

State-Wide Influence

The Texas TGV was already met with some opposition from rural communities along the planned rail line. Farmers feared their land would be seized by the government as part of the project.

In a recent CNBC interview, former Texas lieutenant governor and early Texas TGV investor Ben Barnes said Southwest “did a very good job” at getting farmers to join the opposition. The airline went as far as suggesting that farmers’ cows would “quit giving milk, and all kinds of horror stories were going to happen if we had these electric trains running…,” Barnes added.

He also mentioned that Southwest spent $37 million to lobby against the project’s development.

Other Funding Issues

While Southwest’s influence was undeniable, the Texas TGV itself wasn’t without its problems. Securing private investment proved challenging, and their financial plan raised eyebrows. The high upfront costs inherent in any high-speed rail project, coupled with the uncertain ridership numbers, made investors wary. The $6.5 billion project ultimately failed in 1994.

“…Southwest is credited with causing delays which contributed to Texas TGV’s failure to meet its deadlines under the franchise agreement,” the SMU journal continued. “In fact, most commentators give Southwest the lion’s share of the ‘credit’ for killing this opportunity for high-speed rail in Texas.”

Future High-Speed Rail Plans

Plans to build a high-speed rail network in Texas aren’t completely dead. While a small handful of plans have emerged since the Texas TGV’s demise, the latest involves an investment from Amtrak.

Amtrak is actively involved in the latest developments for high-speed rail in Texas. In 2023, the federal rail operator secured a $2.5 million federal grant to study the feasibility of a high-speed route between Dallas and Houston in partnership with Texas Central, a private company spearheading the project.

Southwest is the second largest operator of intra-Texas flights with just over 170 daily departures between city pairs in the state, per Cirium Diio schedule data. The airline has not publicly opposed Texas Central’s latest plans for a high-speed rail line.

Ryan Ewing
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  • Ryan Ewing

    Ryan founded AirlineGeeks.com back in February 2013 and has amassed considerable experience in the aviation sector. His work has been featured in several publications and news outlets, including CNN, WJLA, CNET, and Business Insider. During his time in the industry, he's worked in roles pertaining to airport/airline operations while holding a B.S. in Air Transportation Management from Arizona State University along with an MBA. Ryan has experience in several facets of the industry from behind the yoke of a Cessna 172 to interviewing airline industry executives. Ryan works for AirlineGeeks' owner FLYING Media, spearheading coverage in the commercial aviation space.

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