Life when you work on the rails at the Port of Corpus Christi.
- “A lot goes on here,” said John Slubar, manager of rail operations for the port. “People may not see it, but there’s a lot of moving parts to this campus.”
- Some people think of the port as only the docking place for tug boats and massive cargo ships. They’d be mistaken.
The port also has an intricate 40-mile network of railroad tracks and switch stations. Port officials say the rail system is crucial to moving billions of dollars in goods that are brought to Corpus Christi from other parts of the world.
The port is in the second and final phase of a $47 million project to fix up and expand parts of the railroad network. The crown jewel of the project is construction of the Nueces River Rail Yard at the Viola Channel.
The recent energy boon has created a higher volume of freight and increased shipping traffic for the port.
The first phase of the project called for nearly two miles of rail, four parallel tracks, an additional track for parking locomotives and about 14,000 track feet, enough storage for 200 rail cars.
That part of the project cost $18.9 million. Most of it was paid for by a $10 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, discretionary grant. The rest was paid for with port authority cash reserves and a special surcharge.
The next phase calls for extending four tracks that were completed during the first phase, and building four additional rails. That portion of the project will cost about $28 million. Three-fourths of the work — roughly $22 million of it — also will be covered by port authority reserves as well as money from the Texas Department of Transportation.
Slubar said the new rail yard will help port officials more efficiently handle additional trains and cars. Today, the port is dealing with robust growth, much of it coming from exploration of the Eagle Ford Shale oil and gas formation.
Experts estimate the energy play contains about 20 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and more than 3 billion barrels of oil. Cargo and barge traffic within the Corpus Christi Ship Channel jumped 12.9 percent in the past year; a total of 6,866 vessels passed through the channel in 2013, compared with 6,082 in 2012.
Beefing up rail will help the port’s immediate growth concerns, but also may position it better for the future, said Hans Schumann, an economics professor at Texas A&M University at Kingsville.
Although oil and gas have been a mainstay for the port, doors may open to even more ship traffic — and perhaps a wider array of non-petroleum commodities — when the $5 billion Panama Canal expansion wraps up next year, Schumann said.
Details of the proposed $700 million Harbor Bridge project still are being worked out, but plans so far call for a higher clearance. That will enable bigger ships to enter the port.
“As Texas continues to develop, we’re going to need bigger infrastructure at the port,” Schumann said. “Investing in rail yards … will significantly aid in diversifying ourselves from petroleum products.”
Petroleum accounted for most of the 89.5 million tons of cargo that sailed through the port last year.
A report delivered to Congress by the nonprofit Federation of American Scientists said North American crude oil producers are increasingly turning to rail to transport crude supplies. That’s because some in the industry are still uncertain about the nation’s pipeline capacity.
The Association of American Railroads estimates U.S. freight railroads carried more than 400,000 carloads of crude oil in 2013, compared with 234,000 the year before and just 9,500 in 2008.
There’s lots of opportunity to grow out there.