Texas Trains

January 17, 2011 by  
Filed under Blogs, Hot Button / Lynn Ashby

By Lynn Ashby                                                            17 January 2011


It appears once more we will not be allowed to board that new-fangled contraption called a railroad. From what I hear, it has some kind of motor in front and people in the back and runs on rails, one, two or maybe more. Railroads (sometimes called “trains”) would give C&W songwriters material for sad ballads, mysteries could unfold in the Pullmans and occasionally the trains could smash autos into jelly.

The non-event is this: A rail line was planned to run between Houston and Galveston traveling at speeds up to 79 mph, carrying 11,480 passengers daily. The City of Galveston was a big supporter of the plan, and well it should be. The 45-mile commuter rail over an existing right-of-way would reduce air pollution, ease traffic congestion on those July Fourth weekends and – quite importantly — provide an evacuation route before the Son of Ike hits town.

But, alas, just like so many projects these days, the plan has been shelved due to our economic paralysis, made worse by several silly decisions. The line was first estimated in 2005 to cost $350 million; since then the projected cost has nearly doubled to $650 million. In 2007 Galveston spent $350,000 for a study to see if the idea was feasible. The study said yes. In 2008, the city spent $850,000 in mostly federal money for an analysis to determine whether Congress would fund the project. Huh? This is no way to run a railroad. A project that was supposed to be completed next year hasn’t even begun. Right now plans to build the rail line are on hold, which means never.

And to think that railroads help make Texas what it is, from the get-go. Back on Dec. 16, 1836, the First Congress of the Republic of Texas chartered the Texas Rail Road, Navigation, and Banking Company to construct railroads “from and to any such points…as selected.” That’s my kind of governmental oversight.

Nothing came of the iron horse until the 1850s when rail companies rose and fell with each economic boom and bust. The first lines went out from Houston, which made Swamp City very proud. The official seal of the City of Houston sports an ancient locomotive and, with a nod to the future, black smoke billowing from its smokestack. The city’s motto was, “Where 22 railroads meet the sea.” That must have been one big splash. With the line heading west, to cross the Brazos the railroad first used a ferry and inclined planes on each side of the river. This system was replaced in October 1858 by a low-water crossing. The Little Engine That Could had to chug mightily to gain the momentum necessary to climb up the steep grade on the opposite side.

And, of course, there was the railroad from Galveston to Houston. What an idea — about 160 years ago. Not only did that line haul passengers and cargo, its tracks changed Texas’ history. On New Year’s Day, 1863, Confederate soldiers charged across the abandoned railway bridge from the mainland to the island and recaptured Galveston – the only part of Texas to be taken by Yankees. Wouldn’t you think the Feds would have burned the bridge?

Towns lived and died depending where the tracks went. For example, in 1870 Jefferson was the sixth largest city in Texas, but three years later the railroad bypassed the town and the river fell, so Jefferson also dried up. Fort Worth, known mostly as the only Texas city to have its namesake interred in a 51-foot-tall monument at Broadway and Fifth Avenue in NYC, became a major player in Texas because rail lines intersected there.

The railroad companies virtually ruled Texas, to the point where its lobbyists ruled the Legislature. Towns were named for rail lines and railroad officials. The state gave land to any railroad that would build a line to wherever. Cities had their largest hotels downtown across from the train station. (The Houston Astros’ offices are in an old, and magnificent, train station attached to the ball park – the station got there first.) Small towns had distinctive wooden stations which today are either libraries or museums.

About 1900 Texas underwent a flurry of construction on electric interurban railways – some 500 miles of them. Dallas had most of the lines, but there were electrified street cars or rail cars going from College Station to Bryan, Beaumont to Port Arthur and – one guess – from Houston to Galveston. For years, that one was the fastest interurban line in America.

.            Our latest attempt at rail was proposed by Gov. Rick Perry, with his Texas Triangle or Trans-Texas Corridor. It would have land set aside for car lanes, rails lines and probably dog runs and  jogging paths, connecting the Metroplex, San Antonio and Houston and everywhere in between. It died, too.

Today, we have freight trains rumbling throughout Texas, hauling containers full of made-in-China TV sets from our Gulf ports. We see long lines of tankers containing gas, petroleum products, chemicals and napalm. But when it comes to passenger traffic, we are down to Amtrak which does not serve us well. When was the last time you rode a train in Texas, as opposed to some bullet in France or Japan? A few years ago I decided to take a train from Houston to Dallas, so I boarded an Amtrak at about 11 p.m., got off in San Antonio in the middle of the night, waited till the Texas Eagle came up from Laredo at dawn and got off in Big D about 11 a.m. Twelve hours.

My grandfather was a railroad man, who started out as a conductor at age 19, when trains ran directly from Houston to Dallas about as often as Southwest Airlines departs today. I figure that, from downtown to downtown, travel time on trains was almost as quick as Flight 123. No wonder the Texas Railroad Commission hasn’t messed with railroads for decades, and dropped all connections in 2005.

Ashby is well-trained at ashby2@comcast.net

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