ALL ABOARD?

Transportation company steers talk of high-speed trains between Houston, Austin, and San Antonio

Virgin Trains may be speeding into Texas. Photo courtesy of Virgin Trains

You've likely heard of the proposed high-speed "bullet" train that would connect Houston and Dallas, as well as the proposed transportation-in-a-tube concept that would link Houston, Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, and Laredo.

Now, another possible alternative to planes, Amtrak trains, and automobiles has chugged into the picture.

Virgin Trains USA, a transportation startup that plans to trade its shares on the Nasdaq stock exchange, is exploring two high-speed routes in Texas — one tying together Houston, Austin, and San Antonio, and the other between Houston and Dallas. All four of those cities are plagued by ever-increasing traffic tie-ups.

There's no word yet on when these routes might take shape. At this point, they're merely ideas, and ahead of the company going public, officials at Virgin Trains are staying mum.

In all, Virgin Trains has outlined seven potential routes in the U.S. beyond what it already has on the drawing board.

"Our goal is to build railroad systems in North America that connect major metropolitan areas with significant traffic and congestion," the company says in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Virgin Trains aims to tie together heavily populated cities separated by 200- to 300-mile distances that are "too long to drive, too short to fly." It wants to run the trains along existing transportation corridors — rail, highway or a combination of the two — "to cost-effectively build our systems, as opposed to developing entirely new corridors at potentially significantly higher costs."

If the Virgin name sounds familiar, it should. British billionaire Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group is a minority investor in Virgin Trains, which already operates a South Florida route between Miami and West Palm Beach. West Palm Beach-to-Orlando and Orlando-to-Tampa routes also are in the works in Florida, in addition to a Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas route. Virgin's other transportation investments include airlines and space travel.

Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, says he's on board with the Branson-backed Virgin Trains venture — not as an "anti-Amtrak" move but as an advancement in U.S. passenger rail travel.

"Speaking from the experience of someone who spent almost his entire career watching Sir Richard innovate, invest, and take risks, I firmly believe this could be a real shot in the arm for passenger rail in the United States," Mathews writes on the association's website. "Like all entrepreneurs, Sir Richard isn't afraid to fail, and he has made a few bad bets in the past. But he's also made some very good ones, and has transformed not just travel but philosophies wherever he has gone."

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This story originally ran on CultureMap.

A new report from the Greater Houston Partnership found that Houston saw over $33 billion in foreign investments over the past 10 years. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Throughout the past decade, over 500 foreign-owned companies from 36 countries have planned investments in Houston. The investments are spread across more than 600 deals within 63 industries in Houston. Adding up the amount of disclosed valuations, the total exceeds $33 billion.

The city has a lot to offer these companies from all over the world, says Greater Houston Partnership's senior vice president of research, Patrick Jankowski, in a release.

"These foreign-owned companies came to Houston for a variety of reasons, from being closer to their clients to establishing a beachhead for entering the U.S. market," Jankowski says in the release.

The information is compiled in the new Global Houston report from the GHP that analyzes data on foreign investment over the past decade. The research shows that now

The foreign investment movement greatly impacts the local economy, Jankowski adds.

"It infuses new capital into the region, expands the manufacturing base, helps underpin jobs, facilitates the exchange of ideas and best practices, increases trade, adds to the tax base and stimulates growth," he says.

Aside from the investments, the report found that locally, more than 2,500 Houston manufacturing firms have their hands in global trade. Around 17.3 percent of Houston's economy is related to exports, which amounts to double than what was recorded in 2003, according to the Brookings Institution. The Bayou City regularly leads the nation in exports, such as oil field services, refined products, chemicals, and fabricated metals.

The report also took into account Houston's diversity, which has also evolved over the past 10 years. About one in four residents are born outside the country, and a third of the population growth is attributed to immigrants — who account for 390,000 of the city's new residents. In 2017 alone, foreign-born Houstonians made up almost a third of the total GDP of Houston, or $142.1 billion.

"Over the last couple of decades, Houston's economy has become more diversified," says Bob Harvey, GHP president and CEO, in a news release. "We've surged beyond traditional oil and gas to include a burgeoning energy tech and renewables industry, a thriving life sciences and healthcare sector, and a robust advanced manufacturing ecosystem. And in that time, as this report shows, Houston's trade and investment ties with the rest of the world have grown as well. These global connections are essential to our long-term success."

In 2018, Houston's top five trade partners all increased activity. The top countries are, Mexico ($24.6 billion in 2018, compared to $20.1 billion in 2017), China ($20.3 billion, compared to $18.8 billion in 2017), Brazil ($12.9 billion, compared to $12.6 billion in 2017), The Netherlands ($10.4 billion, compared to $8.6 billion in 2017), and South Korea ($10.3 billion, compared to $6.8 billion in 2017).

By the numbers

Here are some key findings from the report.

  • The Houston/Galveston Customs District handled 289.2 million tons of cargo in 2018, or 33,000 metric tons every hour.
  • The Houston/Galveston Customs District ranked first in the nation in foreign tonnage handled and 7th in the nation by dollar value in 2018.
  • The three ports of Houston, Galveston and Freeport support 343,525 jobs, according to a report from Martin & Associates and Texas A&M University
  • Of Houston's 1.6 million foreign-born residents, 39.8 percent are naturalized (i.e. U.S. citizens). That's up from 32.3 percent a decade ago.
  • Latin America leads among regions of origin for Houston's foreign-born population with 1.02 million people in 2017, up 42 percent from 2008. Asia follows at 409,395, up 37 percent and Africa with 95,017, a 14 percent increase.