Slow Commotion

Our Patience for Trains is Running Thin

Why do so many freight trains run through the center of an otherwise modern metropolis?

By Jeff Balke September 1, 2015 Published in the September 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Image: QuickHoney

It was still early one recent Saturday morning, but a crowd had already descended on the Saint Arnold Brewery parking lot just north of downtown, a crowd made up of equal parts mirth-makers and matter-of-fact types. This was not unusual, as the parking lot is shared by both visitors seeking to take its popular brewery tours and the brewery’s employees. Among the former, especially, anticipation had built to a fever pitch, and they could hardly wait to get inside and sample a Santo. But they had to. There was a train blocking the brewery from its parking lot.

“Could be three times in one day, or it might not happen for a week,” Lennie Ambrose told us, looking out a Saint Arnold window at one of the Houston area’s 1,200 railroad crossings, and perhaps the most misbegotten. Fittingly for someone lucky enough to have a job as brewery marketing director, Ambrose is normally an affable fellow—but he might make an exception when discussing trains. “The worst is when it stops…and reverses.”

Such frustration is not unique to him, of course. At any given moment, hundreds of motorists are sighing and rolling their eyes all over the Bayou City, having their patience tried for hours, or what seems like hours, even as a 100-car train roars past at 5 mph. At around car 43, the more emotionally fragile motorists will crack, heaving their vehicles forward and backward, jumping curbs and plowing across medians, violently scraping their underbodies in a desperate bid for freedom. 

While sitting and waiting for trains to pass, many questions occur to many a Houstonian, chief among them this: why are there so many freight trains running right through the center of town?

The answer, according to Maureen Crocker, executive director of the Gulf Coast Rail District, is that the freight trains came first. “The rail lines have been here a really long time,” she said, “a lot longer than the housing and everything that has built up around them.” Crocker’s agency was created by the city of Houston and Harris and Ford Bend counties in 2007 to act as a mediator between the freight lines and the public, an increasingly important issue considering that the city’s already enormous freight traffic is expected to nearly double by the year 2025, according to a study commissioned by the Texas Department of Transportation in 2007. 

People have been talking about building lines for trains to bypass this city for almost as long as there’s been a city to bypass, although Houston’s dense network of lines has long been a source of pride as well. The Chamber of Commerce was already sloganizing Houston as “the city where 17 railroads meet the sea” by the turn of the 20th century, and our massive growth since then is directly traceable to said dense rail network. Hard as it is to believe now, the two east-west rail lines along Washington Ave. and I-10—both of which have plagued Houstonians for decades—were originally built to bypass the city. “We have talked about building yet another bypass,” she told us, “but the development does follow.”

From those early days to this, rail has remained one of the cheapest, most efficient ways to move bulk products, from grain to petroleum. In the Houston area, heavy commodities account for more than 80 percent of train cargo, and while you might think that such tonnage would be destined for other places, the lion’s share of freight running through town is on its way to local customers—thank the petrochemical industry for that—or coming to the Port of Houston from locations here and around the country, so bypassing isn’t really an option.

Why don’t the trains at least run on regular schedules, you ask? There’s no incentive for them to. All of the area’s 800 miles of track and 21 miles of railroad bridges are privately owned, and by three companies: Union Pacific Railroad, BNSF Railway Company and the Port Terminal Railroad Association. For them, profitability depends on getting cargo to customers when they want it, not on whether you get your kids to school on time.  

Increasingly, however, the railroads are being asked to play ball with local authorities out of a concern for public safety, if nothing else, because of course, rail traffic isn’t the only thing growing around here. In the East End, for example, home to some of the most heavily used rail lines in the area, residential and commercial development has created a population boom: by some estimates, the population of the area will increase by 50 percent in the next 20 years.

It’s a safe bet that rail-induced traffic stoppages will only become more annoying in the years ahead, but there are greater concerns, such as the obstacles a train-blocked road might pose for emergency response vehicles, and the potential hazards posed by derailments. Everyone seems to agree that the solution is to build more under- and overpasses at rail crossings, but “it’s expensive and there’s not dedicated funding for it,” said Crocker. “These projects compete with adding lanes to [Hwy.] 290 and other major congestion points in the region.”

In her view, because freight traffic to and from the Port of Houston and the energy industry—we are the Energy Capital of the World, after all— is so important to the nation as a whole, the federal government should be on the hook for many of these improvements. “This region really carries a lot of the responsibility for moving freight that benefits the whole nation,” she said. “What we are trying to do is mitigate the impact of that responsibility on our community.”

Speaking of improvements, the GCRD is working on a plan to address 12 at-grade crossings along the three-mile stretch of rail that crisscrosses the East End and directly impacts Saint Arnold. That includes the addition of at least two underpasses, each expected to cost more than $30 million, to be up and running as soon as 2018 or 2019, assuming funding is approved. 

Back at the brewery, Ambrose continued to wax on about all the train traffic he’s constantly encountering. “If you see it is Amtrak,” he pointed out, “you’re super excited because you know it’s only a few cars.” Still, the sound of a train of any kind tends to bring an immediate response from Saint Arnold personnel who need to leave or come to work. “Sometimes employees will sprint to get across.”

As for the brewery’s many fans, “nothing will stop them from getting to their beer,” he said, explaining that some actually try to climb over or roll under stopped locomotives. But Ambrose cautions not even St. Arnold is worth risking life and limb for. 

“What if you climb over and it starts to move?” 

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