Has Texas Central Gone the Way of the Dodo Bird?

Here’s what we know for certain: Texas Central’s CEO Carlos Aguilar, head of the private company with the ambitious (and continually delayed) plan to run a highspeed rail line between Houston and Dallas, recently announced that he’d stepped down from his position—via LinkedIn.

“While I could not align our current stakeholders on a common vision for a path forward, I wish the project the greatest success and remain convinced of the importance of this venture for the safety and prosperity of all Texans,” he wrote, after noting that he was only announcing his departure because a Spain-based news outlet was about to report it.

It’s still unclear who will take Aguilar’s place or if there’s even a company left for anyone to lead. The section of the company website listing the executive team is blank, while the company hotline is out of service. On top of that, the entire board quietly disbanded sometime earlier this month, chairman emeritus and co-founder Richard Lawless confirmed in various reports. (Our request for comment from Texas Central representatives has yet to be returned but we’ll update as soon as we hear back.)

But despite all signs that the company is, or soon will be, defunct, Texas Central’s lawyers insist that word of the company’s demise is greatly exaggerated, as the saying goes.

“Contrary to such unsupported speculation, Texas Central remains open for business under its new management, is continuing to seek further investment, and is moving forward with the development of this high-speed train,” Marie Yeates, company appellate attorney, wrote in a letter submitted in response to an amicus curiae filed by landowner Calvin House, one of many rural landowners who’ve taken their opposition to the company’s use of eminent domain all the way to the Texas Supreme Court.

Although the court is due to issue its decision on the company’s right to use eminent domain in Miles vs. Texas Central any day now, House had suggested in his recent filing that it might be a moot point soon. He pointed to Lawless’s own recent announcement that the company is now being managed by Michael Bui as evidence. Bui works for FTI Consulting and “advises clients through distress events, bankruptcy, reorganization, and sale,” House contended.

So is this the end? Have Texas Central’s highspeed rail ambitions faded away entirely? The answer is still so embedded in spin, politics and the occasionally wire-taut tensions between the urban Texas residents (mostly in favor of the line) and the rural residents (mostly opposed to the line cutting through their land) that it’s hard to tell. Lawless and Texas Central lawyers say there are signs of life, while House, Texans Against Highspeed Rail and other opponents claim that the resignations paired with the unpaid property taxes, as we reported back in April, are clear signs the end is quite possibly near.

We likely won’t know for certain until the company either dissolves or finally breaks ground and starts building the railway.

Whichever way it goes, this is decidedly an ignominious moment for the company. Even though the concept of highspeed trains zipping back and forth across Texas always seemed like a longshot, Texas Central has long had the kind of swag, swagger and backing that made it seem entirely possible they would be the ones to finally pull it off.

According to the numerous statements, updates, and nitpicking emails Texas Central has sent out over the years since the Houston-to-Dallas project became the talk of every community in the rail line’s proposed pathway, everything was going swimmingly and the train would be up and running before we knew it. They would break ground by 2017 with trains whisking passengers between the two cities—with a stop in Bryan-College Station—by 2021, company representatives told us back in 2015.

They came across as downright confident back then.

The thinking seemed to be that since they had what they felt was a good idea—giving people who didn’t want to pay airline rates another way to avoid the long, dull drive on I-45—it would surely happen.

Their prospects seemed quite promising at first. In 2008, Lawless, formerly an Asia hand with the CIA and U. S. Department of Defense who had developed a passion for the Shinkansen bullet train while stationed in Japan, went right to Japan Central’s chairman with his idea to bring the technology to the U.S. Japan Central had been looking to breach the U.S. market for years so the two partnered up and soon focused on Texas for the first line. A few years later the Texas Central was formally established, boasting Drayton McClane Jr. as one of the prime investors and former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels on board as the CEO and president.

But the cracks in Texas Central’s plan began showing as the company struggled to move forward. High speed rail had been tried before in Texas, back in the ’90s, a plan that ultimately collapsed due to a lack of funding with about as much ceremony as what we’re seeing now.

They wouldn’t make the same mistakes the French-backed consortium that tried to build a line back in the ’90s had made, Texas Central’s representatives insisted. They weren’t going to try for any government funding, they said. (And they didn’t—until their fundraising and secured loans capped them so far below the $12 billion estimated cost for constructing the project that they started applying for government grants a few years back while even last year Aguilar stated on a podcast that President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill was crucial to the project going forward.)

They had a plan that would turn Northwest Mall from an archaic relic of a forgotten age of in-person retail into a vital and thriving focal point of Houston once again. (It’s still a decaying shopping artifact that lies unmolested alongside the junction of 610, I-10 and 290.)

The groundbreaking would happen very soon. (Currently that now means sometime this fall.)

Now it is possible that everyone examining Texas Central’s tea leaves is prognosticating incorrectly. Texas Central could come blazing back to life and the city folks could all be settling in to read a book or watch Houston’s coastal plains give over to the Dallas prairie in just 90 minutes a few years down the line. Anything can happen—but all the same, you might not want to bet on it.

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