The train isn't official yet but now there's a builder in place. Photo courtesy of JR Central

The high-speed train between Houston and Dallas still needs an official sign-off before it happens, but a builder has been hired for when that day comes.

Texas Central, the developers of the train, have signed a $16 billion contract with Webuild, an engineering contractor company based in Milan.

Previously known as Salini Impregilo, Webuild is one of the largest civil engineering contractors in the world. They'll be working with The Lane Construction Corporation, a global leader in engineering and construction, to lead the civil construction team that will build the Texas rail line.

According to a release, Webuild is active in more than 50 countries on five continents, including Australia, Europe, Asia, and the Americas.

The company has built high-speed train projects in Europe, along with more complex transportation projects such as the expansion of the Panama Canal, the Grand Paris Express, and the Anacostia River and Northeast Boundary tunnels in Washington, DC.

They've worked in the U.S. since the 1980s but were able to expand their presence in 2016 by merging with The Lane Construction Corporation, based in Cheshire, Connecticut.

Webuild Group CEO Pietro Salini calls the commission an honor.

"Being part of such a challenging project as leader of the design and construction of the railway is a unique experience that we are extremely proud of," Salini says. "This is a wonderful opportunity to further focus our presence in the U.S., our biggest single market, together with Lane, the company building first class transport infrastructure for the country for the past 130 years."

According to the contract, Webuild will execute all the heavy construction for the project, designing and building 236 miles of the alignment, nearly half of it on viaduct and much of it elevated to reduce impact on neighbors and landowners.

Webuild will also build all maintenance and industrial buildings, train depots, and facilities.

The system Texas Central Railroad has proposed will replicate the Japanese Tokaido Shinkansen high-speed rail system, operated by the Central Japan Railway Company (JRC) which, in its 55+-year history has transported more than 10 billion passengers with zero operational passenger fatalities or accidents.

The 200-mph train will be a 90-minute ride between Houston and Dallas, with a midway stop in the Brazos Valley.

In May, Texas Central signed a $1.6 billion contract with Kiewit Infrastructure South Co. and affiliate Mass. Electric Construction Co. to install the train's core electrical systems.

The project has had pushback from some Texas politicians and landowners along the route, but the Biden administration is very pro rail, with a $2 trillion infrastructure package that includes modernizing public transit (commuter rail, buses, stations) and improving and expand the nation's passenger and freight rail network. He recently restored funding to a project that would connect San Francisco and Los Angeles.

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The high-speed train now has a new builder onboarded for the project. Photo of the N700 courtesy of © JR Central

The high-speed train planning a Houston-Dallas route now has a builder on board the project

Right on track

The Texas high-speed train that plans to zip between Houston and Dallas still has some obstacles to plow through, but the project now has a builder at least.

Texas Central, the developer of the Texas Bullet Train, has signed a contract with Salini Impregilo, an Italian construction company and one of the largest civil engineering contractors in the world, and its American subsidiary, Lane Construction.

"This agreement brings us one step closer to beginning construction of the civil infrastructure segments of the project," said Texas Central CEO Carlos F. Aguilar, in a release.

The train still can't move forward because it doesn't own all of the land necessary for the route.

But if/when it does get the land, Salini Impregilo will do the following:

  • supply the civil and infrastructure scope, including the design and construction of the viaduct and embankment sections along the entire route
  • install the track system
  • oversee alignment and construction of all buildings and services that will house maintenance and other rail system equipment

Salini-Lane had previously provided front-end engineering and design for the train's civil infrastructure, as well as an analysis of construction costs and schedule estimates.

"Salini-Lane's unmatched track record with rail infrastructure and, very specifically, its world-class high-speed rail expertise across the globe will be central to the completion of America's first end-to-end high-speed rail system," Aguilar says.

Salini's CEO Pietro Salini says in a statement that the company is both thrilled and honored to bring its large-scale railway expertise to the project.

Salini Impregilo is active in more than 50 countries on five continents, with experience building more than 4,000 miles of railway infrastructure around the world. It has built high-speed train projects in Europe and some iconic projects in the world, including the expansion of the Panama Canal.

Although the company has worked in the U.S. since the 1980s, it expanded its presence in 2016 when it merged with The Lane Construction Corporation, a U.S.-based company with almost 130 years of experience in infrastructure work.

The Texas train will be based on Central Japan Railway's Tokaido Shinkansen train system, which is considered the safest mass transportation system in the world.

The system has transported more than 10 billion passengers in 54-plus years, with no fatalities or injuries from operations, and has an impeccable on-time performance record.

It will debut a new train, the Shinkansen N700S, the sixth generation of this train, before the 2020 Olympics.

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This Texas train system is on track to keep operations green, thanks to a Houston-based company. Rendering courtesy of Texas Central

High-speed train hires Houston-based eco company to keep route green

Onboarding

Texas Central, developers of the high-speed train proposed to run between Houston and Dallas, has selected a Houston-based company to oversee the environmental side of the project: Resource Environmental Solutions will help protect and enhance natural ecosystems and the environment throughout construction and operations.

RES will oversee plans to comply with US Army Corps of Engineers' requirements that the project restore, enhance, and preserve wetlands, streams, and environmentally sensitive habitats along the train's route between Houston and North Texas.

According to a release, RES is the largest ecosystem restoration provider in the United States. In the past decade, it has restored more than 58,000 acres of wetlands, enhanced more than 290 miles of streams, and planted more than 14 million restorative trees.

Recent projects include Maurepas Swamp in Louisiana, the Brooks Creek Wetland Mitigation Bank in Bowie County, and the Robinson Fork Stream Mitigation Bank, the largest floodplain restoration project in the northeastern United States.

RES is also working on the Bois d'Arc Lake Mitigation Area, a 16,600-acre reservoir being built in Fannin County to provide water services to 80 communities in North Texas that's the largest permittee-responsible mitigation project in U.S. history. The restoration area encompasses more than 8,500 acres of wetlands, 70 miles of streams, 3,200 acres of native grasslands, and 2,600 acres of non-wetland forests.

RES will help Texas Central meet regulatory requirements for environmental mitigation, collaborating with community leaders to identify local and regional conservation opportunities. The plan includes rebuilding and restoring wetlands and streams in the impacted watersheds, enhancing the viability of sub-watersheds that are close to the route.

Brian Trusty, VP of the Audubon Society, gives a thumbs up, stating that "Audubon believes the project is a win-win opportunity for both Texans and the wildlife in our state."

"Providing large-scale transportation opportunities that work to reduce carbon emissions, while supporting further economic prosperity and connectivity between the Dallas and Houston metro areas, is progressive and forward-looking," Trusty says. "Partnering with RES ensures the project will be done right, and we are thankful to see Texas Central take this step."

The project's scale will allow RES to identify not only isolated pockets along the route that require restoration, but also entire complexes of streams and wetlands suitable for improvement and conservation.

RES will select mitigation sites and designs that collectively improve the ecological functions of broad areas, including some near the Trinity River, Navasota River, Spring Creek, and Cypress Creek.

This environmental work, combined with innovations of an all-electric high-speed train system, will provide the most environmentally friendly travel choice between Houston and North Texas. The train is estimated to remove more than 14,630 cars per day from I-45.

Other ecological benefits:

  • As compared to highway development, for every one mile of high-speed railroad tracks, about 450 acres of farmland will be preserved.
  • The all-electric system will utilize the latest in green technologies, such as regenerative braking systems.
  • Texas will use the newest generation of Shinkansen trains, the N700 Supreme, which consumes seven percent less energy and weighs seven tons less than the previous model. Lighter trains result in less noise, vibration, and impacts on materials and land.
  • The route largely follows existing rights-of-way corridors, resulting in the fewest possible impacts to socioeconomic, natural, physical and cultural environments.

Consistent with Texas Central's commitment to create opportunities for small, minority, women, rural, and veteran-owned businesses, RES has engaged several small businesses to support its work for the project.

RES CEO Elliott Bouillion says in a release that it's possible to achieve both "environmental sustainability and advanced infrastructure."

"Texas high-speed train is an excellent example of how a modern, green infrastructure approach can be harnessed for both ecological and economic benefits," he says.

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This story originally ran on CultureMap.

The high-speed train is chugging along. Rendering courtesy of Texas Central

Houston-to-Dallas high-speed train hires major international operator

All aboard

The high-speed railroad from Houston to Dallas has acquired a key new player that will run day-to-day operations.

Renfe, an international railway company based in Spain, has been hired by Texas Central, the project developers, as the train's operating partner. The selection of Renfe as an operating partner marks another major step forward for the Houston-to-North Texas high-speed railroad.

Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar says in a statement that Renfe was chosen after a review of the best railroad operators in the world.

"Renfe has established a reputation for excellence in railroad operation in Spain and across the world, and we welcome them aboard," Aguilar says. "With their decades of expertise, they were a natural fit to join our other partners. Having the operator, the design build, and technology teams all on board and able to collaborate will ensure all aspects of the railroad are integrated and efficient."

A release calls Renfe "one of the world's most significant railways operators," running 5,000 trains daily on 7,500 miles of track. The company is integral to the transport system in its home base of Spain, handling more than 487 million passengers and 19.6 million tons of freight moved in 2017.

Renfe, in partnership with Adif, which manages Spanish railway infrastructure, will be responsible for running the trains; maintaining system components, such as engines, signals, and other equipment; and overseeing ticketing, passenger loyalty programs, and other services.

It will also provide technical advice on the design and construction of the Texas train and assist in the further development of Texas Central's operation and maintenance plans, preparing the railroad for passenger service.

Renfe is one of the biggest companies in Spain, employing nearly 14,000 people and recording revenues of 3.6 billion euros in 2017. Its high-speed systems were used by more than 36 million passengers in 2017. In March, Renfe announced that it had posted a net profit of 70 million euros in 2017, thanks in part to a jump in the number of its high-speed passengers, chalking up five consecutive years of growth.

Renfe president Isaías Táboas says the deal is a boon for Texas and for the Spanish railway industry.

"Texas Central represents a large high-speed train project in a country with high-growth potential, for which the Spanish experience will be of great help," he says. "Both Renfe Operadora and Adif have accumulated years and miles of high-speed railway development with professional teams, extensive experience, and specialized knowledge. We are committed to the success of Texas Central in improving the mobility of Texans and others in the U.S."

The agreement comes about a week after Texas Central engaged multinational firm Salini Impregilo ­– operating in the U.S. market with The Lane Construction Corporation – to lead the civil construction consortium that will build the passenger line, including viaducts, embankments, and drainage.

Spain's first high-speed line between Madrid and Seville was dedicated in 1986 and Renfe's first high-speed service connected the cities in 1992.

Its second high-speed line, from Madrid to Barcelona, was completed in 2007. Renfe also operates high-speed service from Barcelona to Paris, Lyon, and Toulouse in France. Among other major international projects, Renfe operates the recently opened high-speed train between Mecca and Medina, in Saudi Arabia.

The 200-mph train will link Houston and Dallas in 90 minutes, with a midway stop in the Brazos Valley.

The Texas train will be based on the latest generation of Central Japan Railway's Tokaido Shinkansen train system, the world's safest mass transportation system. It has operated for more than 54 years with a perfect record of zero passenger fatalities or injuries from operations, and an impeccable on-time performance record.

Texas Central and its partners are refining and updating construction planning and sequencing, guided by the Federal Railroad Administration's recently released draft environmental impact statement. The FRA now is working on a final environmental review that will help determine the project's timeline and final route.

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This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

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Houston startup designs new platform for better navigating health care

patient portal

Taking control of your health can be a difficult path to walk on your own. A new startup, created by eight female Rice University students, is aimed at wading through the health care system.

The Healthcare Navigator is a platform that helps users to learn about not just treatment options, but also the financial bearings thereof.

“About 88 percent of Americans aren’t health literate,” founder and president Kayla Grimes says in a news release. “It’s very hard for them to navigate health care in the way to get the best benefit for it, so what our platform will do is essentially give them the tools and resources to confidently navigate the health care system. We also help with price transparency specifically.”

The multidisciplinary team includes women majoring in pre-med, computer science, medical humanities, art and business. According to Grimes (a rising senior business major), the seed for the idea’s success was planted two years ago when she was volunteering for the National Patient Advocacy Foundation.

“They told me, ‘If you do this right, this could actually change everything in health care,’” she remembers.

Now she and her team have an app, as well as an accessible website, composed of several features all meant to make it easier to save money — and users’ health. The features are:

  • Cost Compass, which compares procedure costs across local hospitals, enabling users to shop around and save money.
  • Care Genius AI, an AI chatbot that helps users to negotiate medical bills and answers health care system questions.
  • Patient Power Modules, which are interactive educational videos that make understanding the health care system easy and engaging.
  • Pocket Doc, which helps consumers find the best providers for them based on location, ratings and quality metrics.
  • Pulse Check Alert keeps users informed on important health care news and patient insights.
  • Care Manager streamlines users’ health care needs and goals in one convenient place.

Grimes says that she hopes that users will skip Google reviews and go straight to their Pocket Doc, which includes information on hospitals, clinics, urgent care centers and freestanding emergency rooms.

“We have that in the system, so that you can actually see useful metrics instead of just going on Google reviews and reading their readmission rate — we’re going to explain what’s a good readmission rate and what’s a bad readmission rate,” she says. “That’s the whole point: We’re not just going to give you these metrics, we’re also going to give you some benchmarks, so you can make the decision for yourself.”

When dealing with your health, knowledge is certainly power, and Healthcare Navigator is bestowing a new kind of power on its users.

Education equity-focused nonprofit taps into robotics, AI to better serve Houston children

the future is bright

Generally, when children are under the age of five, educators believe that they are best suited for and interested in learning, because those are the years in which there is the strongest opportunity to build a broad and solid foundation for lifelong literacy and well-being.

That sentiment is deeply held by Collaborative for Children, the Houston-based nonprofit organization with the mission to meaningfully improve the quality of early childhood education and provide access to cutting-edge technology through its Centers of Excellence to all children, especially those in low-income and marginalized communities.

“The reason the organization was started about 40 years ago is that a group of philanthropists in the greater Houston area suggested that this was so important because 90 percent of the brain develops or grows in the time frame between ages zero to five years of age,” Melanie Johnson, president and CEO of Collaborative for Children, tells InnovationMap.

“And if we were losing children and not preparing them by third grade to be literate, and then subsequently losing them after that for high dropout rates and achievement gaps between poor and affluent children, that this would be the perfect place to start," she continues. "And so, they put the collaborative, the emphasis, and finances collaborative of every, most every early education effort around this region.”

Collaborative for Children’s work in the community is centered around making sure that there is educational equity for all children, regardless of financial status, and providing access to technologies in meaningful ways.

“Ultimately, we want to bridge the digital divide early on so that when children start off their academic journey, they're starting off equipped with the skills to be successful there on,” says Johnson.

Most recently, the institution has focused on utilizing social-emotional learning robots and coding tech toys like the Pepper — the world’s first social humanoid robot able to recognize faces and basic human emotions — and NAO, which resembles human being and stimulates, robots to enhance learning in the classrooms of its Centers of Excellence.

“Technology enhances the learning experience in the Centers of Excellence in ways that a teacher might not be able to,” says Johnson. “Artificial intelligence is used in gamification to allow a child to play and learn while playing.”

For Collaborative for Children, gamification involves transforming typical academic components into gaming themes.

“While playing, the AI gauges the level of skills that they’ve been able to enter into that system and respond with even more challenging tasks or tasks that are still lateral so that they can continue to repeat that skill,” says Johnson.

The socio-emotional learning robots are indeed fascinating, but how does the nonprofit reach these children, and their parents, who might be skeptical of technology?

Ultimately, through the teachers. They draw them in via the technology. If teachers are excited, they act as a conductor of that energy to their students, making their innovative lessons well, electric.

That resonates with most all children, but especially with those diagnosed with autism.

“Robotics like NAO are great for children on the autism spectrum because they are emotionally sensitive and emotionally intelligent,” says Johnson. “They are low sensory, so as NAO runs around the classroom, it can literally have individual and unique conversations with each child based on facial recognition. But most importantly for me, is that this particular robot is able to evaluate children without statistical bias that a teacher might have.

“A teacher might think that because a child confuses the letter D and B, which are basically shaped the same in opposite directions, that they're not learning," she continues. "And the robot will have no prior knowledge in terms of, is this child the better child, or have they been learning throughout the year? The answers are accurate or inaccurate. So, they remove statistical bias when assessing children in the classroom.”

The misconception about teaching technologies is that it’s about screen time. According to Johnson, it’s not. It’s more about interacting with technology.

“We’ve added, you know, all kinds of modern-day technology so that this world that we're preparing these children for 80 percent of the jobs we don't even know will exist when they are adults,” says Johnson. “So, we're just trying to make sure that there is no divide in terms of 21st century skills and 21st century preparation.”

Building Blocks Ep. 12youtu.be

Collaborative for Children has so many facets to assist children with their early development, but there are inherent challenges when attempting to reach their target audience in low-income and marginalized communities that the organization counters with programs like the Collab Lab, which is a mobile classroom that brings critical, future-focused early childhood education directly to the community at no cost.

Designed to be convenient for families, Collab Lab connects parents and their youngest children with experts, educators, resources, and proven programs whose goal is to make sure that kids have the skills essential to learning from the moment they walk into kindergarten for the first time.

“There are a myriad of challenges in these communities that we serve, specifically with technology,” says Johnson. “When children enter first grade, and especially second grade, they're given notepads, basically, digital notepads, because it's no good in pre-K oftentimes, but it is very helpful for children who will never have access or have limited access to iPads and things of that nature.

“So while we don't want them to be babysat by screen time and have social media impacting their self-image and self-worth, we definitely want them to have appropriate doses and appropriate uses of technology in the early education, so that those barriers that their parents face with limited means, that these children can go to first grade and into the robotics class and be able to be evaluated and assessed on the digital notepads that are required nowadays,” she continues.

While technology is very important, Collaborative for Children also focuses on the critical social and emotional skills children need as they develop and the all too important relationship between children and their parents and teachers.

“Theory leads our work,” says Johnson. “It's all focused on fine motor skills, gross motor skills, social emotional, can a child build rapport with their teacher and with the students around them. Those things are paramount and will never change.

“What we use technology to do is enhance and remove biases from teacher-pupil interaction, but also to bridge any kind of divide in terms of 21st century skills. And in addition to that, we engage the families. So families who might not know about hydro-fueled cars in those communities that we serve will be able to be exposed to those concepts, as well through our group connections or parent partnerships.”

Ultimately, the last thing Collaborative for Children wants is to send children from early learning and childcare environments into the K-12 system unprepared to be successful for the real world.

“At Collaborative for Children,” adds Johnson. “We are continuously pushing the envelope at our Centers for Excellence so that the children that we serve will always be on the cutting edge.

The last thing Collaborative for Children wants is to send children from early learning and childcare environments into the K-12 system unprepared to be successful for the real world. Photo courtesy of Collaborative for Children

Houston med school develops revolutionary mRNA vaccine for elephants

zoology biology

An innovative team from Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital has worked with the Houston Zoo to develop a first-of-its-kind treatment for elephants, which has been administered to its first patient.

Tess, the beloved, 40-year-old matriarch of the Houston Zoo’s elephant herd, is recovering well after receiving the first-ever mRNA vaccine against elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) 1A on Tuesday, June 18. The veterinary staff at the Houston Zoo will monitor Tess in the coming weeks to check her reaction and the efficacy of the vaccine.

EEHV 1A is a deadly infection for Asian Elephants. While generally benign in African Elephants, Asian Elephants can develop fatal hemorrhages. The fatality rate is a whopping 80 percent, making it one of the most serous threats to elephant populations outside of humans.

Anti-viral drugs have some effect on the disease, but two-thirds show no improvement. This has led to a search for a vaccine. For 15 years, the Houston Zoo and Dr. Paul Ling at Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Virology and Microbiology have partnered to develop the drug. They have been helped by worldwide research from zoos and animal specialists, as well as graduate student Jessica Watts and Dr. Jeroen Pollet at Houston's Texas Children’s Hospital. The research has been funded by private donations, research partnerships, and grants.

Before being inoculated, the mRNA vaccine was exhaustively tested, with the dosage being extrapolated from data involving horses.

Houston Zoo veterinarians will periodically test Tess to see if she is developing the appropriate antibodies. If she is and there are no adverse reactions, the next step will be to administer the vaccine to the rest of the Houston herd. Many of these are Tess’s own children (Tucker, Tupelo, Tilly, and Teddy) and grandchildren (Winnie).

Should the vaccine prove effective, the doses will be made available worldwide to zoos and private elephant sanctuaries. It is likely to have a significant benefit on protecting and preserving the Asian Elephant population. As of January, there are fewer than 50,000 of the animas left in the wild. They are currently listed as endangered, and breeding programs and research done through the Houston Zoo are essential to keeping the animals from going extinct.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.