Storied Rail Line Will Soon Reconnect West Texas with Mexico

 

PRESIDIO, TX — On Monday, Marc Williams, the Deputy Executive Director for the Texas Department of Transportation, hosted a groundbreaking for the rebuilding of a railroad bridge between Texas and Mexico.

The groundbreaking happened 350 miles southwest from San Angelo, but it was in San Angelo where the idea was first conceptualized.

Two years ago, in 2016, at a San Angelo Chamber of Commerce West Texas Legislative Summit focusing on transportation, a meeting between TxDOT officials, Texas Pacifico Railroad executives, and legislative stakeholders plotted to reopen the destroyed railroad bridge connecting Presidio to Ojinaga, Coahuila, Mexico. It is one of just eight total cross-border rail lines between the U.S. and Mexico. In Texas, it is one of five crossings. All of the other crossings are operational and busy.

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Above: The Presidio-Ojinaga bridge in 1995. (Photo by Wes Carr)

The Presidio connection is a burned-out railroad bridge that sits at the end of the South Orient Line. The South Orient is the name of the State of Texas-owned rail line where the Texas Pacifico Railroad, with its U.S. corporate offices in downtown San Angelo, operates.

The bridge across the border in Presidio has not been used since a fire weakened it in 2008 and another fire destroyed much of it in 2009.

The concept of the South Orient line was to provide a rail trade route through the U.S., through Texas, and eventually through Mexico to the Pacific Coast. From there, goods could be transported via cargo ship to the Far East. In the early 1900s, investor Arthur Stillwell envisioned the South Orient rail line to traverse from Middle America all the way to Topolobampo, Mexico. If he were successful, it would be the shortest possible rail route from Kansas City to the Pacific coast.

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Stillwell ran out of money before the vision was complete.

Nearly 100 percent of the carloads on the line today serve the Permian Basin with frack sand and mud headed in and carloads transporting oil out.

At Monday’s ceremony, J. Bruce Bugg, Jr., Chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, stressed the re-opened rail line between the two countries is crucial to continue to develop the Permian Basin.

The 391-mile South Orient railroad was almost abandoned prior to 2001 before the Texas Legislature, with great foresight, purchased it. The rail line extends from a junction with another rail line located between Coleman and Santa Anna. From there, the rail line extends through San Angelo, Mertzon, Big Lake, Fort Stockton, Alpine, and then to the Texas Mexico border in Presidio where the bridge was located.

It was at the southern end of what is officially called the Presidio-Ojinaga Bridge where officials met for the groundbreaking on Monday. There, officials from TxDOT led by Williams; Chairman Bugg; Luis Saenz from Governor Greg Abbott’s office; Texas Pacifico (TXPF) Executive Vice President Federico Diaz Page; and TXPF’s marketing director Stan Meador; along with Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara; and Lorenzo Reyes Retana, director of corporate projects for Ferromex, dug their golden shovels into the gravel, celebrating the beginning of construction. Ferromex is the largest railroad operator in Mexico.

Texas Pacifico has driven significant growth along the line since 2010. In 2017, 43,757 carloads hauled cargo on the line. But from 2001 until 2009, the average number of train cars was just 2,031 annually. In 2016, 30,565 carloads were transported along the line. Surprisingly, the downturn of the oil business from 2015 to 2016 did not impact the volume much. Carload counts remained relatively stable, growing from 25,538 in 2013 to 25,903 in 2015.

Today, all of the rail traffic along the line is from Coleman to Fort Stockton. When the bridge further south reopens, it will provide a rail connection from West Texas to many new markets via rail in Mexico for oil, gas, and agriculture.

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Above: Congressman Will Hurd talks about the challenges of laying the groundwork, and funding, for rehabilitating the South Orient rail line to reach Mexico once again. (Contributed/Rachel Holland)

Congressman Will Hurd, whose district sits along the Texas-Mexico border from San Antonio to just east of El Paso, was given credit for shepherding through a $7 million FASTLANE federal grant that will rehabilitate 72 miles of the South Orient’s track and existing rail bridges in Presidio County leading up to the bridge. Hurd’s office also coordinated the arduous permitting process to allow the cross-border bridge construction to begin.

TXPF will pay for the reconstruction of the bridge. The bridge is scheduled to be complete in September 2019. Track work on the U.S. side will be completed sooner, in the spring of 2019.

More on the bridge here.

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