EDITORIAL: Track stands

Some hope rail transport still has a future in Texas

Historical texts continue to say that the railroad built our country. However, many today say that the era of the Iron Horse is over. Freight lines continue carry billions of dollars worth of goods across our borders and feed major industrial centers including Rio Grande Valley seaports, but the only major passenger line in the country, Amtrak, needs federal subsidies to stay afloat, and it serves primarily major cities.

Still, many people hold out hope that railways might still fill future needs as our nation’s roads become busier.

Could train transport help serve the Rio Grande Valley’s future growth?

State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, is chairman of the state House Transportation Committee, and he has received a request from other legislators to launch a study into the future of rail transportation. Specifically, the committee has been asked to look into the viability of establishing a commuter rail system from Austin to San Antonio. The idea has been promoted for years as an option to increasing congestion on Interstate 35. More cars mean slower speeds, higher gas consumption and more possibilities of accidents.

Similar goals certainly could apply in the Valley, where trips from Brownsville or South Padre Island to McAllen or Edinburg are routine for many residents. Need a copy of your car title and can’t wait for it to arrive in the mail? You have to go to the Pharr offices of the Texas Department of Transportation? People seeking services from immigration or veterans agencies need to go to McAllen or Harlingen.

Not to mention casual trips to major malls or entertainment venues for concerts and other events.

Getting cars off the roads obviously is desirable. But any rail system requires a major investment, beginning with the acquisition of property on which to run the lines. Usage would have to be high in order to make the investment worthwhile.

Commuter rail works, in some areas along the Eastern Seaboard such as Miami, the Washington, D.C. area and northern states. But would Texans give up their beloved cars and hop onto trains, at any price?

Several factors make that a long shot. Riding a train to a particular city is only the first part of the trip; riders then need a way to get from the train station to their final destination and back. That requires dependable bus service or other forms of public transportation, and most Valley cities don’t provide the service.

A secondary suggestion, using rail to link the Valley to the rest of the state, has also been raised but the odds are even longer against that option. Rail service from northern cities to the Valley, especially South Padre Island, might bring more tourists to the area, but the seasonal nature of such tourist destinations isn’t likely to justify investing in an expensive system that might have light patronage for much of the year.

It’s unknown whether Canales’ committee will focus only on the Austin-San Antonio corridor, or take a wider view and see if rail service might serve other parts of the state. Such an option might make travel more convenient for many Valley residents, but such a system doesn’t seem viable in this area for a long time.