International rail traffic is on the horizon in Presidio

PRESIDIO – It’s been 13 years since a train has traveled between Presidio and Ojinaga, but the project to restore one of only six international rails between Mexico and the U.S. is closer than ever to completion. Though a timeline for the commencement of rail traffic is still hazy, “As of today, the physical infrastructure to run trains across that bridge and up and down that corridor exists,” said Texas Pacifico’s Stan Meador. “We’re ready to go,” he said, at least as far as infrastructure goes.

After one fire in 2008, and another in 2009, wiped out the railroad bridge where goods could pass between Presidio and Ojinaga, the international mode of transport lay dormant for years. Then, the Texas Department of Transportation and Texas Pacifico Transportation Ltd. broke ground on a project to revive the train line in 2018, ten years after the whistles had gone quiet.

Excitement brewed last December when the sound of whistles blew in Presidio, and the first train rode the rails in over 12 years, though it did not make an international crossing.

As Texas Pacifico has worked to restore the rail line, the economic benefits to the area have already trickled in. The company hired local Presidio residents to labor on the rail restoration project, bringing jobs to the area during some historically tough years economically. Parts of the line between Fort Stockton and Presidio are rated for slow speeds now, but as Texas Pacifico’s investment in the line continues, Meador said, “There’s more infrastructure work in the line that will be coming in the coming years that will allow us to grow the traffic.”

Since the rail will mostly travel through Presidio, the economic gains can be harder to spot. “The important thing is, what does it allow to evolve over the next five to 10 years. Our tendency is to think ‘What does it mean tomorrow?’” Meador said. The initial day one growth will be the need for customs brokers, the presence of Texas Pacifico growing in the region, visiting the area, staying in hotels and eating at the local restaurants. Meador said, “As infrastructure in Presidio gets rebuilt, I think the other opportunities you may not see on day one will start to materialize a little more.”

“Taking into consideration that Mexico, being our largest trading partner, sits on the other side of that border, I think it’s important to have as many gateways as possible for trade purposes,” said Meador, the vice president of sales and marketing at Texas Pacifico. The rail will increase efficiency at the port, offering more ways to pass through customs as goods travel from Fort Worth in North Texas all the way to overseas shipping ports in Topolobampo on Mexico’s Pacific coast.

Other rail crossings at Texas’ border are saturated with service, and Texas Pacifico believes the Presidio line could become a reliever route where people will ship goods through to avoid higher traffic areas. As the pandemic and a major blockage at the Suez Canal have agitated global supply chains, the company has already heard interest from shippers through California looking for new ways to reach the Pacific coast. The company expects agricultural products, bulk grains, raw materials, finished Mexican products and more to travel through the port.

With the physical rail in place in Presidio, the efforts now shift to making sure goods that come through the rail port are successfully checked by U.S. customs. At first, that may be a temporary facility.

In the final phase before trains are a go, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is collaborating with TxDOT and rail line operator Texas Pacifico to establish “the infrastructure and operational procedures necessary to initiate international rail traffic via the Presidio railroad bridge,” said Roger Maier, a public affairs specialist for CBP.

“Additionally, Texas Department of Transportation continues to acquire all funding necessary to sustain international rail traffic,” said CBP’s statement on the rail status. “No timeline for commencing international rail traffic is available at this time.”

“The big prize is that there’s a permanent customs and border facility that will be built at the bridge, and that’s a $3,000,000 facility,” Meador said, and the company hopes to secure that funding in the final months of 2021.

With that funding in place, they will start building that permanent facility, which will take a few years with the permitting and procurement procedures required. It’s forecasted to take 30-36 months after the funding gets secured to have a fully operational CBP processing facility on the rail bridge, Texas Pacifico said.

“But what we’re doing right now are features putting in place things that allow CBP to effectively process trains before that permanent facility gets built,” Meador said. “That would allow some train operations to begin sooner rather than later.”

Meador said, “It’s been a long time coming. I know people locally have heard for years that the train’s coming back, but we are closer than ever. We feel like we’re getting really, really close to being able to provide rail traffic. It’s going to be a crawl, then walk, then run scenario, but you’ve gotta start somewhere, and we’re excited about that.”