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Paying the freight - Solving rail clogs will take big bucks, but from whom?

The tangle of railroad tracks on the east side of downtown Fort Worth is confusing enough. But the path to a solution, through a maze of private and government entities, may be even more vexing.

On Monday, Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Michael Williams, accompanied by railroad managers and a representative from the North Central Texas Council of Governments, toured the notorious Tower 55 - the area surrounding an old dispatching tower now used by railroad police.

The area, just inside the intersection of Interstates 30 and 35W, is a tangle of tracks that produces congestion for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific railroads.

During the tour, Williams, like everybody else, agreed there is a problem. And like everybody else, he agreed that the solution isn't obvious.

"I'll go back to Austin and see if we can get the commission, the state government, local governments and maybe the federal government to work together on the problem," Williams said.

Even to the layman's eye, the tracks east of downtown, dating to the 19th century, are a mess. They now carry an average of 168 trains daily, double the volume of a decade ago. The area around Tower 55 just inside the southwest quadrant of the I-30 and I-35W interchanges is considered one of the half-dozen most congested inner-city railroad centers in the United States.

And unlike the freeway interchanges that rise above the tracks east of downtown, all of the railroad tracks are on the same grade. That means time-consuming delays where the BNSF and UP tracks come together at their "Diamond" intersection. That in turn poses the threat of the kind of massive tie-ups on the UP system that brought railroad traffic to a halt in Houston four years ago.

Each day on the north-south BNSF line, train after train of coal arrives from Wyoming, bound for utility generators in Austin, San Antonio and Houston. BNSF also routes its Midwest-originated trains filled with corn, soybeans and wheat through Fort Worth, bound for Gulf of Mexico ports.

Union Pacific's east-west line bears traffic that originates at California ports with goods that may go all the way to the East Coast. The UP line also serves the General Motors assembly plant at Arlington.

"What we have now on the railroad tracks is what you'd have if the freeways were all the same grade, with no raised elevations or tunnels to move traffic, and everybody had to use a stop sign," said Marty Manasco, a governmental affairs executive for BNSF.

Furthermore, the idling diesel engines are beginning to pose an air pollution problem, according to Mike Sims, assistant transportation specialist with the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

What is needed for Fort Worth, everybody agrees, is a series of either trenches for below-ground traffic or elevated track to give trains the same grade separation that automobiles whizzing above the tracks enjoy.

But Sims summed up the crux of the issue: "The problem is that nobody is big enough to fix this by themselves."

The railroads say they can't commit the hundreds of millions of dollars needed for the grade separations. That leaves federal, state and local governments looking at one another, hoping one will step forward with a big cash bag.

Williams hopes to be a catalyst for movement toward a solution, but he admitted that the problem will require much legal and political legwork.

He likely will start with the federal government, which is the most active of the entities in funding railroad operations. A precedent would be Fort Worth's new intermodal train depot, which now serves Amtrak and local bus passengers and was funded through a Federal Railroad Administration grant encouraging train-bus passenger service.

The federal government has designated the Fort Worth tracks a potential high-speed corridor for passenger service. Trouble is, Amtrak is battling to stay alive financially and is in no position to launch new and expensive initiatives.

The state would be next in line to provide financial help, but like most state governments, Texas would be hampered because fuel tax money cannot be spent on anything other than highway construction and maintenance. There are some railroad safety funds, and Williams said he may push for their use.

"The railroad commission has some oversight for railroads, but we don't provide money for railroad improvements," Williams said. "I'll talk with the Texas Department of Transportation to see if they want to be involved."

Local governments can get interested, particularly if there is a passenger or commuter railroad component that would provide some traffic and pollution relief, said Sims.

Williams said that to a certain extent, every large Texas city has the same problem with inner-city railroad tracks. The tracks were laid in the 19th century when Fort Worth, Dallas and other Texas cities were scarcely more than villages.

The tracks that wind their way past the east side of downtown date from the coming of the Fort Worth & Denver Railway in 1873, considered by historians the single event that turned Fort Worth from a frontier village into the major regional urban center it became.

"The cities grew up around them," said Steve Plyler, director of terminal operations for the Fort Worth service unit of Union Pacific. "They're the reason Fort Worth is the great city it is today. But that doesn't solve the congestion problem."

Neither Burlington Northern Santa Fe nor Union Pacific was part of the scene in 1873. The old Burlington Northern took over the Fort Worth & Denver early in the 20th century. Union Pacific came into Fort Worth in the 1980s when it merged with Missouri Pacific, for years the dominant carrier in the northern half of Texas. UP added to its local system in 1997 when it added the former Southern Pacific Railroad to its network.

Union Pacific has two-thirds of the traffic and a special interest in getting a solution for the problem. Most of the trains through Fort Worth are coming in or out of UP's big Centennial Yard, south of Vickery Boulevard and west of downtown.

"This is a major traffic point for our system," Plyler said.

Dan Piller, (817) 390-7719 [email protected]


Copyright 2002 Star-Telegram, Inc.

Ft. Worth Star-Telegram
Dan Piller