Today, the freight trains carry petrochemicals and toys from China. The city has grown up around the tracks, tearing some lines out and hemming in the rest. Most people only notice trains when they are blocking a road. That happens a lot: The Texas Transportation Institute estimated 186,000 drivers are delayed every day by regional train traffic. Shippers lose millions every year because of delays. The circulatory system is clogged.
And that's the dilemma: Railroads that haul the freight essential to the area' economic health and growth also carry the baggage of traffic congestion and resulting pollution that could jeopardize economic growth.
"It's costing us in our efficiency and in our environment," said Jeff Moseley, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership. "It is an important strategic infrastructure upgrade that we must have if we are to be competitive in a global economy."
But the solutions are expensive, and require coordination between numerous private and public sector interests. Moving freight trains out of the urban core is not an option, since it would cripple the petrochemical industry, said Mark Ellis, chairman of the Gulf Coast Freight Rail District. The state Legislature created the district in 2007 to coordinate efforts at reducing rail congestion in the region.
Trains carry dozens of industrial chemicals as well as plastic pellets used for hundreds of products. Before the recession, almost 900 trains were moving in the Ship Channel area every day. Region-wide, freight train traffic was growing 4 to 5 percent a year.
"What's interesting about
Houston compared to other cities is our railroad has grown considerably since
World War II," said Christof Spieler, a board member of the Citizens'
Transportation Coalition. "And that's because of petroleum and because we've
grown as a city."
The recession has eased the rail traffic problem temporarily, but transportation leaders warn the reprieve will not last. Houston's population will grow and the widening of the Panama Canal could bring a massive influx of shipping containers to Houston's port starting in 2014. Train freight could triple by 2035, according to the Houston-Galveston Area Council, a planning agency.
But clearing the blockages in the rail system will not be easy. "Everyone agrees the system is broken," Ellis said. "But there's a lot of fear of change and people wondering who would pay for it."
Freight railroads are private businesses, and the big players in Houston have already been spending money to upgrade tracks and switches and keep traffic moving through. But they want public help for the more expensive solutions, like building bridges to separate streets from railroad tracks. In exchange, the railroads may consider sharing their tracks or rights-of-way with commuter trains.
When interstate highways were built, many people thought railroads would wither away. Across Houston and elsewhere, rail corridors were sold off and developed. But now railroads seem poised for a comeback. They have triple the fuel efficiency of trucks, and that makes them cheaper and less polluting.
Freight trains could move more smoothly through Houston if there were bigger rail yards and fewer points where roads and tracks cross. The Ship Channel is also a big geographic barrier.
Planners agree that the fate of future commuter rail is intimately tied to the freight rail problem. That's because commuter trains must share tracks - or at least the rights-of-way - with freight trains. There's no other place to put commuter rail tracks affordably.
Although it is done elsewhere, Union Pacific, which owns most of the tracks in Houston, would prefer not to share its tracks with commuter trains. "We would have concerns about the safety of commingling commuter and freight operations," said Joe Adams, a vice president for public affairs. "And we have concerns about losing present and future freight rail capacity."
That means that commuter rail along U.S. 90A is scarcely a possibility right now. That route, which would serve commuters in Sugar Land and other Fort Bend areas, is a critical Union Pacific route, bringing in containers full of Asian-produced goods from ports in California.
But two other freight lines have less traffic, and Union Pacific is working with government planners to free them up for commuter trains. One runs out the U.S. 290 corridor and one runs along Texas 3 to Galveston. TxDOT is considering granting $2 million in stimulus funds for two engineering studies on those routes.
The engineering studies will design routes that bring suburban commuters to the 610 Loop, but no farther. The freight traffic inside the Loop is still too busy, and although there is an abandoned rail line, it runs right through the Heights - a politically vocal neighborhood. The compromise is to build some commuter lines now, connect them to light rail or bus lines, and figure out later how to get them inside the Loop, to downtown.