Energy & Environment

Finding Land For Boom In Freight Trains

Freight trains need land for rail yards but where in Texas?

The side of a Union Pacific freight car
Union Pacific freight car in Mumford, Texas

 

A growing Texas economy means thousands more rail cars are needed to keep up with the increasing flow of oil, petrochemicals and other goods. But the challenge is to find a suitable place to build huge rail yards that can cover hundreds of acres and handle thousands of rail cars a day.

Since 2009, one rail line reports a 35 percent increase in the number of rail cars “terminating” their trip in Texas.

“You’re talking a massive increase in movement that’s really poised to increase a lot in the next five years particularly with what’s happening in South Texas and West Texas,” said Ken Medlock, an energy economist at Rice University’s Baker Institute.

South and West Texas is where the oil is and tank cars by the thousands are moving it to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast.

But it’s not just oil. There’s also a big expansion of chemical and other manufacturing along the coast, plus more goods are moving through ports in Beaumont, Houston, and Corpus Christi.

Maria Burns is a transportation expert at the University of Houston. She shows a reporter a map of Texas marked with a web of rail lines and highways that converge in clusters.

Maria Burns photograph
Maria Burns is a transportation expert at the University of Houston

“So these form a cluster. One of these clusters is right in between Austin, Houston and San Antonio and another cluster is somewhere between Houston and Dallas. Right where Bryan-College Station is located,” Burns said.

And that’s why just northwest of Bryan-College Station, one of the nation’s biggest railroad companies, Union Pacific, may be looking to locate a huge, new rail yard. Union Pacific wouldn’t tell News 88.7 its exact plan, only saying that it’s exploring such a project.

But talk to some of the farmers here in the tiny town of Mumford, and they’ll tell you the rail company has been trying to buy land, land they say is some of the most fertile anywhere and that has been farmed by their families for generations.

“This is nothing short of a tragedy. It’s going to take out of production and it is going to destroy — literally going to destroy — some of the most valuable farm land in the country,” said Kathy Hubbard, one of those farm family descendants. Another is Frank DeStefano.

 “We don’t think just for ourselves, we think for our offspring, our families, this is not just about us,” said DeStefano.

They say they want the land to be passed down, not sold off. But land for a new rail yard will likely have to be found somewhere near here. Union Pacific says it needs the yard for sorting and assembling trains which it says in the long run will be a positive for communities.

“These projects would also improve our efficiency, which could allow for positive public impacts as our trains run more freely.,” wrote Jeff DeGraff, media relations for Union Pacific, in an email to News 88.7.

The farm families in Mumford said they’ve learned that they can do little to stop the rail expansion and are now appealing to state and local elected officials.

“We’re not stopping, we’re not quitting our fight, it’s not over, we’re going fight to the end,” said Kathy Hubbard.

 

 

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Dave Fehling

Director of News and Public Affairs

As Director of News and Public Affairs, Dave Fehling manages the radio news operation at Houston's NPR station. Previously, he was a reporter at the station, covering the oil & gas industry and its impact on the environment. He won top state honors for in-depth and investigative reporting as well...

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