December 7, 2022 448 PM
PRESIDIO — In November, TxDOT released an infographic detailing the timeline for an international rail inspection station between Presidio and Ojinaga. The project is currently slated to be completed by the end of December 2024 and would provide a permanent home for Customs and Border Protection (CPB) operations overseeing rail transport between the two cities.
The new inspection station would allow cargo trains to pass between the two countries for the first time since 2008, when a fire forced the original rail bridge to shut down. Officials broke ground on the rehabilitation of the rail line across the river a decade later, in 2018 — one of the biggest engineering challenges was rebuilding the track at a higher elevation, since construction of the new-and-improved levees to protect Presidio from major flooding partially buried the remains of the bridge.
The inspection station is the missing piece needed to make the bridge fully operational once again. The re-opening of the rail crossing could be an economic fresh start for Presidio — even before the bridge burned down, crossing numbers were relatively sluggish. One hundred fifty-two trains headed into Ojinaga from Presidio in 1996; in 2006, there were eight. In contrast, the dual international rail bridges in El Paso have reported 1,013 crossings so far this year.
Texas-Pacifico’s South Orient Rail line runs from the Fort Worth area to Presidio, where originally the line was picked up by Ferromex on the Mexican side. The Ferromex tracks end in Topolobampo, a port town that once connected Presidio and Ojinaga with the Pacific coast — and a vast global shipping network.
The project is an example of “nearshoring” — as the COVID-19 pandemic has bungled supply chains and made shipping overseas more complicated than ever before, companies have had to get creative with how to distribute their goods globally. For industries that run the gamut from agricultural products to construction materials, the Presidio rail line could be the golden ticket to reaching interior Mexican markets as well as markets served by Pacific sea cargo.
The project has already had a regional ripple effect here in the Big Bend. A TxDOT infrastructure assessment in 2015 described the 137 miles of track between Fort Stockton and Presidio as “out of service”; in 2018, the agency reported “one customer … that gets random service.” Anticipating the re-opening of rail in Presidio, TxDOT undertook a major rehab of the railway between Alpine and Presidio, repairing broken ties, tracks and washed-out bridges.
In October 2021, the state Legislature appropriated $15.5 million of Texas’s federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds toward the construction of the international rail inspection facility in Presidio. The money was earmarked for building materials as well as the high-dollar X-ray machine and other surveillance equipment needed to outfit the station to federal standards.
Roger Maier, public affairs specialist for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, explained that the facility would most likely be staffed on-and-off by customs agents stationed elsewhere, since the trains don’t cross 24/7 like the traffic at the vehicle and pedestrian bridge. The trains pass through an X-ray unit and are observed by CBP staff, including a canine unit. “These are freight trains, so there are no inspections of passengers, although we do encounter stowaways from time to time,” he said.
TxDOT is currently in the “preliminary design” phase of the project, taking input from the city and county of Presidio, Presidio County, the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), CBP, Texas-Pacifico and contractors HDR Engineering. The “final design” phase of the project is expected to be completed in the fall of 2023.
Stan Meador, vice president of sales and marketing for Texas Pacifico, was optimistic — though admittedly frustrated by aspects of the project that had already been pushed back months beyond what was originally pitched. “It’s not happening as fast as we’d like to see it — but for us, it can’t happen fast enough,” he said.
For Meador — and the work his company and TxDOT have already sunk into the project — there’s no question that the rail bridge will eventually reopen, but what form those operations take could change if the delays continue to pile up. “Everything is hypothetical,” he said. “Shipping customers have been hearing about this bridge reopening for 15 years. The market doesn’t believe it’s going to happen until they see it.”
Despite the challenges of trying to coordinate a huge project between multiple agencies, he was confident the finished product would eventually help connect happy rail customers with an expanded market. “We’re quite confident there’s going to be a lot of volume there, ready to go.”