Increased train traffic slows crossings

In this undated photo, vehicles begin to pile up as a train crosses a road in Harlingen. (Lisa Seiser | Valley Morning Star)

HARLINGEN — At the old Missouri-Pacific Railroad depot, Sharon Doucet is seeing longer trains headed south to Mexico.

Flanked between the city’s railroad crossings at Harrison and Tyler avenues, she’s been keeping an eye on train traffic for 35 years from the site of the former railroad depot.

“We know when they’re coming and going and the length of the trains,” said Doucet, who helps run H&H Golf Carts, which now occupies the historic stucco building on Commerce Street.

“Perhaps there’s an increase in the length of the trains. I can see when traffic is jammed or when they’re held up.”

Along Union Pacific’s southbound railways, trade has about doubled in the past 10 years, Harlingen City Commissioner Tudor Uhlhorn said.

“We have a lot more train traffic than we’ve had,” he said.

For motorists, the increase in train traffic is apparently leading to longer delays at the city’s railroad crossings.

Last Thursday, Bud O’Rear said a train backed up traffic for blocks.

“He had traffic backed up on Commerce and traffic backed up to Fair Park,” O’Rear, owner of Bud’s Quality Plumbing, said Friday. “But that doesn’t happen a lot. I’ve noticed the trains are getting longer but less trains. They might be a mile-and-a half-long. When those big dudes come through, they aren’t stopping.”

Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell said he’s considering meeting with officials at Valley Rio Switching Co., which helps handle Union Pacific’s traffic.

“From observation, it looks like there’s more activity,” Boswell said. “This is something I noticed recently that we might have to look at — visit with them about.”

At Rio Valley Switching, Patrick Johnson, the company’s operations manager, referred questions to Greg Wheeler, vice president of operations for Ironhorse Resources, Rio Switching’s parent company in O’Fallon, Ill.

Wheeler did not respond to messages requesting comment.

Switching yard moves

For decades, the local company operated its train switching yard in Harlingen.

At a site off Fair Park Boulevard, the company switched Union Pacific’s rail cars — a process often leading to stalled trains blocking railroad crossings for periods of up to 30 minutes.

“They had to detach some of the train and leave it on the track because UP was switching part of the train,” Harlingen Assistant City Manager Gabriel Gonzalez said.

In 2010, after years of planning, the city funded a $17 million project to move the company’s train switching yard from Fair Park Boulevard to Olmito.

“We don’t have the traffic stops anymore because there’s a train not moving,” Gonzalez said.

Increased rail traffic

Now, he said, booming rail trade with Mexico is increasing train traffic.

“I’m pleased when the train comes by,” Doucet said. “It means money is going somewhere.”

In 2016, the United States rail exports to Mexico, from grain to fuel and automobiles, climbed to $44.7 billion, according to the Statistics Portal.

“When we get an increase in traffic it’s because we get more trains coming through with more commerce because business is increasing in Harlingen and the Valley,” Gonzalez said. “It’s traffic that’s coming through — it doesn’t stop.”

Options

But in Harlingen, rail traffic is slow, Uhlhorn said.

“Harlingen sort of suffers from a little bit of a problem when trains come through town,” he said. “They go super-slow, for safety reasons, because we have so many crossings, I suppose. What we see are trains moving slower — very seldom do they stop — they’re going through.”

That’s what causes the traffic delays.

The city might have some options to curb these issues at its railroad crossings.

Uhlhorn suggested recommending railroad officials revise their schedules to cut down on delays during peak drive times.

“We could try to work with them on what times (trains) come through,” he said. “I would figure the times people are not moving the most.”

Boswell said options could include construction of overpasses or underpasses at the city’s main railroad crossings.

“Potentially, there are things that could be done,” he said. “They’re expensive.”

For decades, city leaders have mulled similar construction projects.

However, Uhlhorn said the project’s high cost might make it unfeasible.

“That’s a massive project,” he said. “That is a tremendous amount of money.”