August 17, 2020 – TRA Austin Bureau –
The long-awaited update to the Texas State Rail Plan is now available on the Texas Department of Transportation website. The release of the 2019 Rail Plan executive summary and category chapters had been delayed until an executive review at TxDOT was completed and was also slowed down by staff being out of place because of the Coronavirus.
The comprehensive document provides “an inventory and description of the assets of the Texas railroad network for railroads of all classes and for non-operating railroad owners that includes background and details about the physical and operating characteristics of each railroad and rail line segment in the state,” according to the TxDOT Rail Division website.
While the data in the rail plan can be used to gauge potential freight capacity and used as a tool to identify and prioritize potential rail infrastructure improvements, TxDOT is heavily constrained from planning and implementing any rail projects in the state due to a lack of funding.
“The Rail Division runs with a skeleton staff and ultra-small budget compared to the rest of the TxDOT empire. But let’s be fair, it’s not the fault of TxDOT”, according to Texas Rail Advocates President Peter LeCody. “Without some level of dedicated funding from the Texas legislature most of the projects shown on the Rail Plan will never be built.”
“There is keen interest for developing our rail system, both on the freight and passenger side with public-private partnerships,” said LeCody. “And most people don’t realize that with not even a kick-start funding mechanism the state has missed out on over $19 billion in the last decade that the federal government has apportioned to dozens of states that have a matching-fund program of some sort. Let me repeat that….. $19 billion dollars went to other states because there was no matching funds available for federal rail programs like we do day in and day out for highways.”
A review of the 2019 updated Rail Plan shows that it contains more information and is more comprehensive about railroad operations in the state than any previous document TxDOT has issued.
A substantial portion of the 387 page document included letters and comments from both public figures and private citizens asking for expansion of passenger rail service between Texas cities, including on the I-20 corridor to East Texas, on the I-35 corridor between the Red River and the Valley and on the Sunset Limited route across South Texas.
The Federal Railroad Administration requires states that want to participate in any federal programs to update their state rail plan on a periodic basis.
According to the 2019 Texas Rail Plan, Union Pacific Railroad is the big dog in the state with 5,192 miles of track followed by BNSF Railway operating on 2,626 miles. Kansas City Southern shows 580 miles operating in parts of North and South Texas.
The majority of railroad operators in Texas are classified as Class III railroads, regional and short line operators on 1,130 miles of track. Many of the 55 short-line railroads in the state range from 2 to 30 miles or so and serve specific industries while the longest Class III railroad, Fort Worth Western stretches 276 miles from Fort Worth toward Brownwood, in West Texas. The state of Texas owns the South Orient Railroad, 391 miles of track through Southwest Texas. Since 2001, Texas Pacifico Transportation Ltd. (TXPF) operates and maintains the SORR under a lease and operating agreement with TxDOT.
Public meetings were held in advance of the update. Texas Rail Advocates participated as a stakeholder in both freight and passenger rail discussions with the Texas Department of Transportation. In a December 6, 2018 news release Peter Espy, TxDOT Rail Division Director was quoted as saying “The rail system is a critical component of our thriving economy, safely connecting industries, ports, and people without congesting highways. The Texas Rail Plan serves as a blueprint for the future development of the state’s passenger and freight rail system and addresses existing and future rail service in Texas.”
Over 3,600 members of the public participated in a Texas Rail Plan survey that included questions like what could be done in Texas to improve freight rail access, promote economic development, and enhance the state’s competitiveness in national markets and the global marketplace and what could be done in Texas to improve passenger rail access and promote travel mobility and economic development. The questions and answers can be found starting on page 188 of the rail plan: http://ftp.dot.state.tx.us/pub/txdot-info/rail/texas-rail-plan-2019-draft-appendices.pdf